Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, leaves a big legacy The influential prime minister worked to revive the economy with his trademark "Abenomics" and rebuild Japan's role on the global stage. His assassination stunned a nation where gun violence is rare.

Shinzo Abe, killed at 67, leaves a storied legacy as Japan's longest-serving premier

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The policies of Japan's longest serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, were highly controversial, both at home and throughout Asia. But that did not lessen the shock and the mourning after his sudden death, nor will it erase his lasting impact on Japan's politics and Asia's geopolitics. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this report from Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SHINZO ABE: (Speaking Japanese).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Abe was giving a stump speech for a candidate in western Japan's Nara city ahead of parliamentary elections on Sunday. A man approached him from behind with what appeared to be an improvised firearm. Then two shots rang out.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

KUHN: Abe was rushed to a hospital. Doctors failed to stop the bleeding, and Abe was pronounced dead around 5 p.m. local time. Police arrested a 41-year-old Nara resident named Tetsuya Yamagami, who had served in Japan's military. Police say he confessed to the crime. He denied that it was politically motivated, but his exact motives remain unclear.

In Tokyo, a visibly shaken Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke to reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FUMIO KISHIDA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "I'm not aware of the background of this act, but it took place during an election, which makes it an attack on the core of democracy," he said. "It's a contemptible act of barbarism and cannot be tolerated."

The shock reverberated around Japan. One Kyoto resident, surname Shimizu, said he felt things were moving backward in the country.

SHIMIZU: (Through interpreter) Maybe such a thing is normal in the U.S., but this took place in Japan, and I am shocked.

KUHN: Another resident, surnamed Otake, said she had expected that something like this could happen to Abe.

OTAKE: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "I think that various problems that Japan has now were brought about during his administration," she said. "I'm against Abe."

Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, notes that there's little gun crime in Japan, and there hasn't been much political violence in Japan for more than half a century.

KOICHI NAKANO: I think the national mood is really shock and horror, in part because this kind of violent incident is rare in general.

KUHN: Abe's influences lasted well beyond his eight years and two terms as prime minister, ending in 2020. His successors have largely stuck to Abe's policies, says Tobias Harris, the author of a book on Abe.

TOBIAS HARRIS: He laid out a blueprint that I think has been hard for his two successors to deviate from and I think will continue to basically be the blueprint that his successors will have to follow.

KUHN: Another part of the blueprint is Abenomics, which aimed to jumpstart Japan's ailing economy after decades of stagnation. On the security front, says Koichi Nakano, Abe's policies paved the way for Japan's role alongside the U.S. in confronting China.

NAKANO: He was at the forefront of pushing for the increased militarization of Japan in the context of U.S.-Japan security alliance.

KUHN: In order to promote and protect Japan's national interests, Abe took pains to cultivate close ties with U.S. presidents, including Donald Trump, with whom he bonded over Wagyu burgers, sumo wrestling and golf. Trump welcomed Abe to the White House in 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I shook hands, but I grabbed him and hugged him because that's the way we feel. We have a very, very good bond.

KUHN: Abe's overall vision called for taking Japan back and reclaiming its position as Asia's leading power. He referred to it in a 2019 speech in Davos, Switzerland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ABE: It is the dawn of a new era. Japan now reinvigorated and revitalized.

KUHN: But Tobias Harris argues that Abe was mostly just using nostalgia as a political tool. His real aim, Harris says...

HARRIS: ...Wasn't just recreating the past. It was actually trying to make a new Japan. Not always successfully, not always something that was, I think, politically popular, but I think we should think of his project like that.

KUHN: But until the shock and mourning at Abe's assassination wind down, a fuller debate about Abe's triumphs and failures may have to wait.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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