by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Kremlin/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Disinformation, Misinformation, and Speculation in the Wake of the Shooting

THE SHOOTING DEATH of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe drew international headlines yesterday. The incident took place while Abe was on the campaign trail in Nara, Japan. Abe was shot at 11:30 AM, Japan Standard Time, and did not have vital signs, but was transported by helicopter to Nara Medical Hospital, where he underwent a large blood transfusion. However, Abe was pronounced dead at 5:03 PM. Abe, who served as prime minister for two periods from 2006 to 2007 and from 2012 to 2020, was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. 

Although the motives of the shooter are not completely clear, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami claimed to not be motivated by political causes, and that he had a grudge against a “religious organization” that he viewed Abe as part of. Some reports state that Yamagami was a Che Guevara fan, perhaps hoping to draw connections between Yamagami and left-wing groups, while other reports suggest connections between Yamagami and Korean religious groups. Yamagami was a former member of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and used a handmade firearm. Rates of gun violence, as well as gun ownership, are low in Japan. 

Even with Yamagami’s motives unclear, this did not prevent an undue amount of speculation and political spin on the matter. 

Japanese right-wing ultranationalists were quick to speculate that Yamagami might be Zainichi Korean or Chinese, referring to descendants of ethnically Korean or Chinese individuals present in Japan before World War II, in many cases due to forced labor conscription. Such claims from ultranationalists are common, attempting to pin blame for incidents on a historically persecuted minority group in Japan. Koreans have been targeted by violence in the wake of disasters such as the 1923 Kanto Earthquake, resulting in the Kanto Massacre.

It is significant to note that left-wing groups in Japan, such as the Japanese Communist Party, were quick to disavow the violence. Namely, such groups knew that they would be quick targets for the Japanese right, which might try to pin the attack on them, and were probably acting to combat the spread of disinformation. 

Official portrait of Shinzo Abe. Photo credit: Prime Minister of Japan Official/WikiCommons/CC BY 4.0

Either way, one notes that there is a long history of political assassination in Japan by right-wing ultranationalists, including the 1932 May 15th Incident, the 1932 League of Blood Incident, or the 1960 assassination of socialist politician Inejiro Asanuma. A right-wing motive is far from the realm of possibility, such as if Abe–a far right-wing figure–was still not right-wing enough for the shooter, but there has been more misinformation and disinformation to date pinning the blame on groups with links to Korea or the Japanese left.

Other forms of rampant speculation, as well as active disinformation, tried to pin the blame on China. Abe was well known for hawkish political views, including recently calling for the US to station nuclear arms in Japan. During his second term, Abe tried to reinterpret Article 9 of the postwar Japanese constitution, which forbids the fighting of war, except in defense, so as to allow for war in defense of Japanese allies. Abe’s attempt to reinterpret Article 9 provoked the largest set of protests in Japan since the 1960s. 

Indeed, given historical antagonisms between China and Japan and rising regional tensions in past years, some Chinese nationalist netizens were quick to celebrate Abe’s death. So, too, did English-language authoritarian leftists, often referred to as “tankies.” Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times claimed the culprit to have obtained his weapon due to JSDF links before there had been any concrete reporting on the topic when this turned out not to be the case, as the weapon was self-manufactured.

However, such celebratory comments by Chinese nationalists of varying stripes could be seized on–particularly by Japanese ultranationalists–in order to bolster claims that China was behind the Abe shooting, or to target minority groups in Japan, with the claim that they have links to the political left. This is claimed regarding individuals of Chinese descent in Japan, with claims about links to the PRC, or Koreans, with claims of links to North Korea. While Abe may have been a vocal critic of China, it is hard to imagine what China would gain from his assassination, except for ramping up geopolitical tensions. 

Lastly, it may not be surprising either that some western commentary has simply seen events in Asia as an abstraction to project political concerns closer at hand onto. For example, some gun advocates from the US have claimed that the incident would not have happened if gun ownership were as widespread in Japan as in the US, never mind that such incidents of violence are a rarity in Japan precisely because of further restrictions on gun ownership. Of course, the attempt by tankies to make political fodder out of the shooting proves no different than that of American conservatives; Asia is equally an empty canvas for tankies and conservatives to project their fantasies onto. 

But aside from projections from outside, the dangers going forward ultimately are twofold. Again, first, views amplified by Japanese nationalists pinning the blame for the assassination on Zainichi Korean or Chinese could lead to the targeting of such groups domestically in Japan. Second, regional tensions are further amplified in the wake of Abe’s death, and all the more so if China comes to be seen behind Abe’s death in some way. 

The Romanticization of Shinzo Abe in Taiwan Should Not Surprise

IT MAY NOT be surprising to note the wave of eulogies that have poured in for Abe after his death. Death, after all, has a way of causing even the most controversial of figures to become idealized. 

This was particularly the case in Taiwan, with an outpouring of support for Abe after his death because of his efforts to strengthen ties between Taiwan and Japan. Apart from comments by President Tsai Ing-wen and other politicians, no less than Taipei 101 lit up for Abe, with a message of condolence. The last time Taipei 101 lit up for a politician seemed to be for former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo during a visit to Taiwan. 

Where Taiwan is concerned, one notes that praise for Abe continues a longstanding romanticization of authoritarian figures in Taiwan–so long as they support Taiwan. It may not be surprising to note that Taiwanese by and large understand international politics in a one-dimensional frame: that of support for Taiwan versus opposition to Taiwan. 

Facebook post by President Tsai Ing-wen on Abe’s death

Abe was known in domestic Japanese politics as a right-wing nationalist. Abe’s attempt to reinterpret Article 9 of the Japanese constitution goes back to the fact that he was the scion of a political dynasty going back to the Japanese empire, as the grandson of wartime Japanese prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, the founder of the Liberal Democratic Party that Abe presided over. 

Removing Article 9 of the Japanese constitution–seen as an imposition by the post-war occupation of Japan–was something that Kishi sought to accomplish during his lifetime. This ideological mission was something Abe later inherited, as part of a nostalgic view for the Japanese empire. 

Abe was sharply dismissive of the war crimes committed by the Japanese empire, including the use of comfort women, the use of chemical warfare, and other actions. One of the major political scandals that Abe was embroiled in during his tenure as prime minister was the highly nationalist curriculum employed at the Moritomo Gakuen elementary school that Abe’s wife, Akie Abe, served as honorary principal at in Osaka. The elementary school required that students recite the Imperial Rescript on Education daily, a practice required from 1890 to 1945 during the Japanese imperial period. 

Indeed, even as the US has sought to push Japan and South Korea into an alliance against the threat of China in past years, Abe’s refusal to apologize for Japanese war crimes proved a stumbling block. 

Abe’s politics prove clear in his association with right-wing authoritarians, such as his “bromance” with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in the early 2010s, or his positioning himself as the “sidekick” of US president Donald Trump near the end of his time as prime minister.

Like Trump and Modi, Abe targeted freedoms of press during his leadership of Japan. A state secrecy law that was signed into law shortly after Abe took office during his second term as prime minister had a chilling effect on Japanese media, with Abe commenting to Trump that he should target the New York Times as he had sought to crack down on the Asahi. 

But whether Trump or Abe, Taiwan has long idealized right-wing figures so long as they supported Taiwan–even if that was only in the interests of using Taiwan as a wedge issue against China. Abe, then, has been remembered in terms of statements of support for Taiwan, such as purchasing Taiwanese pineapples in the course of attempts by China to pressure Taiwan through banning pineapple imports–or calls for the US to explicitly commit to the military defense of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. 

Again, it probably is that Taiwanese simply care little about issues in the domestic politics of other countries, except as this affects stances on Taiwan. Apart from a lack of attentiveness to incidents such as, say, the attempted storming of the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021, issues of gun violence in the US, or Trump’s assaults on fundamental freedoms of speech, this leads to an idealization of colonial and imperial powers as benevolent, altruistic defenders of democracy. 

Yet even as Abe is remembered in such rosy terms, when the political opposition in Japan, the Democratic Party, was led by half-Taiwanese, half-Japanese politician Renho Saito, the LDP criticized Saito as being “Chinese.” It proves convenient for the LDP to bring up support for Taiwan when it serves as justifying a stronger stance against China, but then to label a half-Taiwanese politician as “Chinese” when expedient–something revealing about their views of Taiwan more broadly. 

Perhaps uniquely of Japan’s former colonies, Taiwan often remembers Japanese colonialism in a positive light as having modernized the island, or as a means of distinguishing Taiwan from China, as having undergone a half-century of Japanese colonialism. But this historical nostalgia—colored by the post-facto idealization of the Japanese colonial period in light of the KMT’s treatment of Taiwan afterward–dovetails uncomfortably with contemporary Japanese right-wing nationalism. 

So, too, perhaps with the US, with similar amnesia that idealizes America’s role as Taiwan’s security guarantor when the US has historically been willing to throw Taiwan under the bus. This could be seen in decades of the US abetting the KMT’s authoritarian rule in Taiwan, or even the unusual fact that there is little historical memory in Taiwan of the American firebombing of Taiwan that took place during World War II. 

Facebook post by the DPP on Abe’s death

This positive view of Abe or other right-wing politicians should not surprise, not too far off from how recently ousted UK prime minister Boris Johnson is largely thought of in a positive light in Ukraine for his support of the war against Russia, with views of Johnson compressed along the single metric of his support for Ukraine. And so, it should not be surprising if there is little concern in Taiwan for the effects on Zainichi Korean or Chinese, or other marginalized communities in Japan after the shooting death, the idealization of Abe’s views that will take place, or if there is insufficient attention to that the risks of regional conflict are heightened by the shooting. 

Indeed, the shooting took place shortly before Japanese House of Councillors elections–with Abe canvassing at the time of the shooting–and have a strong possibility of affecting the outcome of the elections. Abe remained a significant figure in the LDP and there will now be a factional power vacuum after his death, with some having speculated that Abe’s resignation two years ago for health reasons was aimed at angling for another term as prime minister down the line. Otherwise, Abe’s brother Nobuo Kishi could see himself pushed toward a stronger position in the wake of Abe’s death. Nevertheless, while Japan has not seen any true opposition party since the end of World War II with the predominance of the LDP, the shooting has already been leveraged on by the LDP, with the claim that opposition rhetoric was what led to the incident. Consequently, an outcome of the shooting is that it will have a negative effect on democracy in Japan. 

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