FSU expert: ‘Japan has not been immune to political violence’

The assassination Friday of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe happened in a country that boasts exceptionally low levels of violent crime.  

But Abe’s murder by a gunman in Nara, a city near Osaka and Kyoto, prompted recollection of a time when political violence ran rampant in Japan.  

“From a historical standpoint, Japan has not been immune to political violence,” said Annika A. Culver, an associate professor of East Asian history at Florida State University and a leading global expert on imperial Japan and Japanese-occupied Northeast China. “Indeed, in the pre-World War II political landscape, it was very common that you would have an extremist attempt to assassinate a well-known political figure.” 

Culver pointed, for example, to the 1932 assassination of Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, which she said marked for Japan a period of increased fascism and militarism that preceded World War II.  

“The 1920s and the 1930s was a real heyday of almost ‘politics by assassination,’” she said. 

As a former resident of Japan, she emphasized the country’s relative lack of violent crime, political or otherwise. Also, assailants tend to use knives rather than guns, which the government heavily regulates. Abe’s suspected killer used a homemade gun, according to reports.

“It’s a very safe society in general,” Culver said. “People are not afraid to go out in the evenings, and, in general, the society has incredibly low random crime.” 

News reports identified the suspected shooter as a 41-year-old unemployed man who “holds hatred toward a certain group, which he thought Abe was linked to,” according to CNN.

Culver noted Abe’s service as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and as the leader of the right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party. Citing health reasons, he stepped down in 2020.

Abe remained influential in Japanese politics and was giving a campaign speech outside a train station when he was shot.

“He was very strong and committed to what I would call his right-of-center vision of politics that many have called Japanese-style conservatism, and he was very supportive of the American mission in East Asia,” Culver said. “But he also wanted to put Japan on more of an independent path.” 

Culver specializes in Japan- and Northeast Asia-related topics. Her research and publications have focused on propaganda and advertising, cultural production in Manchuria/Manchukuo and the Japanese empire, the history of science in Japan, and more recently, the growth of Japanese consumer capitalism.

Her books include “Glorify the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo,” and a new book, “Japan’s Empire of Birds: Aristocrats, Anglo-Americans, and Transwar Ornithology.”   

News organizations can reach Culver at aculver@fsu.edu.