Shinzo Abe’s killer Tetsuya Yamagami is revered as a ‘god’ in Japan

TOKYO—Few people would have imagined that when former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated in public with a handmade shotgun, the man who killed him would be seen as some kind of folk hero by adoring fans across the country.

This month, the cover of the Japanese weekly SPA! was a feature film about hero worship for Tetsuya Yamagami, the 42-year-old man who shot Abe on July 8. Money, gifts and food were sent to him in jail by supporters across the country. There’s even an online petition asking for a reduced sentence for Yamagami that has garnered thousands of signatures.

The eight-page article in SPA! on the Cult of Yamagami is a magnum opus on the convoluted factors that played into the elevation of the assassin from “terrorist” to “noble vigilante” by some Japanese nationals.

The headline in garish gold letters goes nowhere: “The Man Who Attacked Abe, [Tetsuya] Yamagami is now revered. This lower-class god of Japan evokes sympathy—[from those who have also known] poverty, religion, loneliness, [and had] poisonous parents.

After the former prime minister’s death, Yamagami claimed his real intention was to draw attention to the deep ties between Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Unification Church, a sect South Korean Christian. It seems he’s been wildly successful. There is a storm of anger enveloping the sect and the legislators who have huddled against them. Every day, LDP politicians, including the current Japanese Prime Minister, are singled out by the media for their alleged servitude to the Church.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has seen his support rate drop to 36% since the shooting, while support for Yamagami appears to be on the rise.

At its height, the Unification Church sucked so much money from Japanese worshipers and their families that many went bankrupt. In the 90s, there was even an attempt to investigate the organization for systematic fraudulent activities and extortion. The group has been accused of using political influence to evade raids and arrests. Yamagami was reportedly one of many who grew up in Unification Church households that were pushed into poverty by the organization’s monetary demands.

The petition calling for Yamagami’s sentence to be reduced was launched a week after Abe’s assassination. The individual who started the petition has avoided the limelight, but what we do know is that she is a woman in her 50s and identifies as ‘second generation’ of the Unification Church, just like Yamagami.

The petition now has over 8,000 signatures. The person who allegedly started the petition on the site says she has “warm feelings for Yamagami in light of his harsh upbringing”, and that “he is a very serious, hardworking person who has room for rehabilitation. We ask that you give a generous view to Tetsuya Yamagami, who has lived under these circumstances for as long as he can remember.

Tetsuya Yamagami, the man charged with the murder of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Photo by Jiji Press/Getty Images

In the comments section, many passionately defend Yamagami and praise him for drawing attention to allegations of collusion between the cult and the ruling party. “Thanks to Yamagami, the darkness of this land has been brought to light,” one user wrote. “If the media had done their job and exposed the Unification Church [and its political ties] he never would have had to make that decision,” reads another comment.

Part of the reason Yamagami continues to grow in popularity may have to do with Shinzo Abe and the LDP’s exploitation of anti-Korean sentiment to solidify power. Revelations that the LDP and Abe used a South Korea-based sect to win the election have sparked xenophobic anger and cries of hypocrisy.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016.

Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Technically, Yamagami could face the death penalty for assassinating the former prime minister. In practice, the unwritten rule is that an assailant must kill two or more people before being given the death penalty. Recently, Tomohiro Kato, who killed seven people during a rampage in Akihabara in 2008, was executed after 14 years on death row. This was the second execution carried out under the Kishida cabinet.

Journalist Tamaki Kawasaki was one of the first to popularize the term “Yamagami Girls” in her article, “The Sensation Caused by the Emergence of Love-Struck Yamagami Girls”, published two weeks after Abe’s assassination. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Kawasaki rolls her eyes at the mention of the phrase.

“To a certain extent, there are always people who are infatuated with individuals who commit murder or some crime. The stubborn think that only they can understand the outlaw. So they marry on paper with criminals in prison. The Yamagami Girls represent the same thing,” says Kawasaki. “But there are also many other reasons why he has won public sympathy as well. His actions are by no means excusable, but he has struck a chord of admiration for semi-suicidal vigilantes in Japanese culture.

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