Abe assassination suspect Tetsuya Yamagami indicted over shooting

The Japan Times/January 13, 2023

By Tomoko Otake

Prosecutors indicted Tetsuya Yamagami on Friday in connection with the July 8 assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — a shooting that shocked the world and led to intense scrutiny over ties between religion and politics in Japan.

Yamagami, who was arrested on suspicion of shooting Abe as the high-profile politician gave a speech in the city of Nara, has been charged with murder and violations of the firearms and sword law.

He has reportedly admitted to the shooting, saying he targeted Abe over his ties to the Unification Church, which is known for its mass weddings and aggressive tactics for soliciting donations. The suspect has also told investigators that he had long held a grudge against the controversial religious group, saying that his mother’s blind faith in – and excessive donations to – the church had ruined his family.

From late July through this week, Yamagami, 42, was held at the Osaka Detention Center, where he underwent psychiatric evaluation, a process needed for prosecutors to establish his criminal responsibility. Through interviews with a prosecution-appointed psychiatrist and medical examinations, the prosecutors judged that the suspect is fit to stand trial.

In the months since the shooting, stories about Yamagami’s past and issues surrounding the Unification Church — formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification — have come to light. Yamagami’s father died by suicide during his childhood, which prompted his mother to join the South Korea-based Unification Church, his uncle has told the media. The uncle also said that the mother donated a total of over ¥100 million to the group, including insurance payments that the family received after the father’s death.

Yamagami, who attended a high school in Nara known for being academically competitive, gave up going to college as a result of his mother’s faith and devotion to the church, which left the family in abject poverty. And in 2005, while a member of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, Yamagami attempted suicide himself, apparently believing that doing so would allow him to leave insurance payouts to a younger sister and an older brother who had suffered a loss of sight in one eye due to cancer, according to the uncle. The elder brother later took his own life.

Blaming the religious group for his hardship, Yamagami is reported to have initially looked for a chance to attack the church’s top leaders. But he switched his target to Abe after a failed attempt in 2019 to bring a Molotov cocktail to a church meeting in Aichi Prefecture and then later watching a congratulatory video message that Abe sent to a group close to the church in September 2021, according to media reports.

Yamagami also appears to have considered Abe a sympathizer of the church, being a grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who himself served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960. Kishi is known to have played an instrumental role in the group’s establishment in Japan in the 1960s.

It emerged after the shooting that Yamagami had used metal pipes to build a gun by himself and test-fired it before the alleged attack on July 8.

The fatal shooting of Abe, who served as prime minister for a total of 3,188 days, the longest tenure in Japanese history, was condemned unanimously and internationally as an affront to political speech. But the case also triggered intense criticism of the church’s aggressive pursuit of donations and its manipulation tactics, as well as the group’s many connections to politicians.

As a result, support for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida plummeted, with his handling of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ties to the group proving to be unpopular with the public, leading to a string of resignations by ministers in his Cabinet over issues both related and unrelated to the church late last year.

Last week, Japan began to enforce a new law to prevent financial exploitation of individuals by religious and other groups and to help victims, banning such groups from soliciting donations through unreasonable means.

The education ministry is also investigating the Unification Church with an eye on revoking the group’s religious corporation status. A group without the status would be able to continue activities but would lose its tax benefits.

Meanwhile, National Police Agency chief Itaru Nakamura resigned in August to take responsibility for security lapses that led to the killing of Abe. In its report on the assassination, the agency concluded that the attack “could have been prevented” if the police had identified the risk of an attack in advance.

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