Japan PM denounces attack, vows security review before G7

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during an interview with foreign media members at the Prime Minister's official residence Thursday, April 20, 2023, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida denounced a pipe bomb attack at a campaign event he attended last weekend and pledged to review security procedures to ensure safety for dignitaries visiting the country for the Group of Seven summit he will host in May.

“No matter what the reason is, the use of violence to shut down free speech should never be tolerated,” Kishida told selected media from G-7 countries on Thursday at the Prime Minister’s Office, as he stressed that the attack occurred during a nationwide local election campaign.

“The election, which is the foundation of democracy, should not succumb to violence. We must carry out the election until the end,” he said, explaining why he has continued to deliver speeches since the attack on Saturday.

A man hurled a pipe bomb at Kishida at the fishing port of Saikazaki in the western prefecture of Wakayana just before he was to make a campaign speech for a local candidate from his governing party. The moment the explosive fell near him, he was pushed away by special police and evacuated unhurt before the bomb exploded.

The alleged attacker, Ryuji Kimura, 24, was wrestled to the ground and arrested on the spot.

The attack, which targeted the prime minister less than a year after former leader Shinzo Abe’s assassination, raised questions about whether any lessons had been learned from Abe’s case, especially as Japan navigates key events like the ongoing elections and G-7 meetings.

“As we prepare to welcome many guests from around the world for the G-7 summit and other events, I feel it is very important to once again review our security measures so that our guests can visit Japan with a sense of safety,” Kishida said.

During the May 19-21 summit in his electoral constituency of Hiroshima — the target of the world’s first atomic attack — Kishida plans to appeal for nuclear disarmament, while pledging support for the rules-based international order and vowing to play a greater role as the only Asian member of the G-7 to bridge Western economies with the so-called Global South nations. He will also demand that Russia stop the war on Ukraine immediately.

“I feel our path toward achieving a world without nuclear weapons has become an increasingly difficult one,” said Kishida, who has made the goal his career aim. “But that makes our cause more important than ever, and we must keep raising the flag of the ideal to achieve a nuclear-free world and reverse the ongoing trend. To do so is a responsibility Japan bears to human society as the world’s only country to have suffered nuclear attacks.”

He said Russia’s war on Ukraine has raised fears the same could happen in Asia, and he said calls for a rules-based international order, along with the rejection of one-sided change to the status quo, could be widely accepted.

“It is extremely important for the G-7 to reaffirm the basic position, and it could help the international community to unite in case a situation like this happens in places other than Russia and Europe,” he said.

Violent crimes are rare in Japan. With its strict gun control laws, the country has only a handful of gun-related crimes annually, most of them gang related. But in recent years Japanese police have worried about “lone offender” attacks with homemade guns and explosives.

Abe was assassinated with a homemade gun at a campaign event on July 8 last year, just two days before the upper house election. The police have since tightened their protective measures following a subsequent investigation that found holes in Abe’s security.

Kishida said Saturday’s explosion also raised questions over the appropriate distance between candidates or political figures and the voters at campaign venues.

“It is difficult to balance ... but I think it is time for us to think of the distance between politicians and voters that is appropriate for democracy in Japan,” Kishida said.

Compared with U.S. elections, audiences at political gatherings in Japan — where handshakes and mingling with voters are often considered more important than policy debate — are allowed to be quite close to candidates. At the campaign event with Kishida, the front-row audience was within touching distance and there were no bulletproof shields or other physical barriers between them.

Additional safety measures, including bag checks and the use of metal detectors, were introduced at some campaign venues after the attack on Saturday.