Shinzo Abe’s Assassination Sparks Shock, Glee, and Reflection on Chinese Social Media

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated on Friday, July 8 while campaigning in Nara, Japan. Abe, 67, was the longest serving Prime Minister in Japanese history—he held office briefly from 2006-2007 and then again from 2012-2020 until he resigned due to health issues. In China, Abe was a deeply controversial figure: respected in some quarters for presiding over improved, although not necessarily harmonious, relations with China, yet widely despised for his positions on his country’s past war crimes. In a statement, China’s Foreign Ministry said, “We are shocked by the unexpected incident.” Online, there was an outpouring of surprise and, in some corners, glee at his demise—as well as a bursty of censorship targeting posts and songs that intimated regret that the victim was not China’s own leader, Xi Jinping. At The Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale and Miho Inada reported on the details of Abe’s assasination

Police arrested a 41-year-old man who they said approached Mr. Abe from behind as he gave a speech in the city of Nara and fired twice with what appeared to be an improvised firearm. A doctor who treated Mr. Abe said he had gunshot wounds near the base of his neck and one bullet pierced his heart.

[…] The man who approached on this day, police said, was Tetsuya Yamagami, who lives in a Nara apartment near the shooting site. A person of that name served in Japan’s navy, known as the Maritime Self-Defense Force, from 2002 to 2005, according to the Defense Ministry.

[…] The assailant carried an apparent homemade weapon. Video footage taken after the shooting showed a device on the ground that looked like two metal pipes bound together with tape. 

Much about the assailant and his motives remains unclear. The 41-year-old former member of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, Japan’s Navy, used a homemade gun in the attack, and was arrested immediately afterward. 

Much of the international news coverage was dominated by hagiographic coverage of Abe’s life and legacy, often omitting or papering over his history of apologism for the Japanese army’s World War II-era practice of forcing the women of conquered nations into sexual slavery; his visits to the Yasukini Shrine (a major flash point in China-Japan tensions); and his assaults on press freedom in Japan during his tenure as Prime Minister

While the Chinese government expressed condolences and sympathy over the attack, Chinese state media outlets published pieces rife with darker speculation that his assassination was a comeuppance of sorts. Global Times published speculation that Abe’s assassination was a result of his dominant position in Japanese politics. “As there’s no way to change the status quo, so [Tetsuya Yamagami] picked an extreme way,” a Chinese scholar told GT

Some online discourse mined similar veins. A post saying, “Let the celebrations begin!” in response to Abe’s death swiftly garnered over 150,000 likes on Weibo. Other ghoulish jokes followed: “Is the corpse okay?”; “The corpse’s EKG is stable”; “Although he lost his life, he gained his freedom”; and “Is the gun okay?” Another commentator wrote a warning to Yama, the god of the underworld: “Yama: He’s a slippery bastard—I’ve only freaking heated up the pan [he’ll fry in] 800 times!” What’s On Weibo reported that popular blogger Zhang Xiaolei praised the assassin as someone who “will go down in the history of Japan,” while comparing him to the protagonist of a popular song by Eason Chen. Others hailed Yamagami as a “hero of the Anti-Japanese War,” China’s term for World War II. Former Global Times editor Hu Xijin attempted to break the nationalist fever on Weibo by encouraging followers to put their “political disputes with him to the side,” but soon pivoted to accusing external forces of “malicious manipulation” of netizen comments after he, too, became a target of nationalist rage. 

The ugly commentary spilled off the internet and into public life. A blogger on the site NetEase documented how businesses across China began offering discounts, deals, and other promotions celebrating Abe’s death. The top comments on the blog roundly condemned the stupidity and cruelty of the promotions. One commenter wrote that “these people are the same as the guy with the U-lock back in the day,” referring to a man who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for assaulting the driver of a Japanese car with a motorcycle lock during anti-Japanese riots in 2012:

Celebrate Abe passing away – Buy one milk tea get one free for the next three days of worldwide jubilation

The 7/8 Abe Banquet Meal Deal

In celebration of Shinzo Abe getting bumped off today, buy a car and get a free pair of driving gloves!!! [Chinese]

Other exceptions to the glee at Abe’s death, CDT Chinese noted, included a number of people using Abe’s assassination to express death wishes for Xi Jinping

After the shooting, some netizens reposted songs such as “Unfortunately Not You” by Malaysian singer Fish Leong (梁静茹, Liang Jingru) and “That Day Will Come” by Singaporean singer JJ Lin (林俊杰, Lin Junjie) as an oblique way of expressing regret that the assassination victim was former Japanese PM Abe, rather than current Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Many netizens also flocked to the Weibo hashtag #可惜不是你# (#Too bad it wasn’t you#) to post such messages as “Why couldn’t it have been HIM?” and “Why do good things always happen to other people?,” causing the entire comments section to be scrubbed. 

CDT translated a number of the compiled comments: 

Laughing my ass off—could it be that someday, the words “whatshisname” [an oblique way to refer to Xi Jinping] will be banned? // Suggested search term: “whatshisname”

I hope that the next time I open my eyes, *something* will have happened to *whatshisname* and *whatshisname.*

When whatshisname dies, I’m definitely going to buy a loudspeaker to broadcast his elegy.

If whatshisname dies, I’m going to post the same kind of stuff that Chinese people have been posting online today. 

On WeChat, blogger Zhang Feng posted a poignant reflection on the connection between 9/11 and Abe’s assassination, calling for universal condemnation of violence, whoever its targets

While talking through this issue with a few of my young friends, I learned they actually had no clue whether or not Abe was “anti-China” while in office—in fact, they didn’t even know what years he held the post of Prime Minister, what year he retired, or what policies his party pursued while in power. All they knew was this: Abe was once Japan’s leader and Japanese people dying is a good thing, especially if they’re major public figures. That’s just how they think.

[…] When 9/11 happened, I was at school reviewing for my graduate examinations. Watching the news on the television in our dormitory, I realized that my classmates were cheering. Twenty-one years later, nearly two generations, people are still cheering for violence. We must ponder this. In the internet era, big events that happen in one country have global repercussions. Accordingly, those living in this era should have a basic understanding of the modern global consensus and how it came about. To put it in layman’s terms, at the very least you need a sense of history, a worldview, and values.

These consensuses are recognized not only by Chinese governments past and present, but also by generations of Chinese people who strove to realize them—the process of forming these consensuses created the modern world. The so-called “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind” first requires us to live by basic human values: violence and killing must be opposed, resolutely opposed, whether they occur in Japan, America, or China. 

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