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The fateful 140 seconds before ex-PM Abe's assassination and the gun that killed him

(Mainichi)

More than a month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an election campaign speech in the city of Nara, repercussions of the incident continue to shake Japanese society. Below the Mainichi Shimbun analyzes the movements of 41-year-old suspect Tetsuya Yamagami on the day and the homemade weapon he used, while probing security lapses at the scene.

    At approximately 11:29 a.m. on July 8, the former prime minister stood before a crowd of about 300 people. "Hello everyone. I'm Shinzo Abe," he said, beginning his speech.

    As he continued to talk, he raised his left fist into the air and said, "Instead of thinking about why we can't do it..." when a gunshot rang out. White smoke rose into the air, and about 2.7 seconds later there was another shot, and Abe collapsed.

    This image from video provided by Toshiharu Otani shows a man believed to be suspect Tetsuya Yamagami, second from right, as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, holding a microphone, prepares to give a speech, on the morning of July 8, 2022.

    What happened in the approximately 140 seconds before the shooting? The Mainichi investigated the turn of events based on its coverage and video footage captured by onlookers.

    -- Assailant approaches from behind, unhindered

    Abe's roadside campaign speech for a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate in the House of Councillors election began at around 11:10 a.m. It was staged on a separated strip at an intersection near the north exit of the Kintetsu Railway's Yamato-Saidaiji Station. The spot was surrounded by guardrails on all sides, with an about 40-centiemter-tall red platform for the speaker.

    In front of the platform was a pedestrian crossing, while to the left and right were commercial facilities and a bank. Behind the strip, separated by a road, was a roundabout outside the station. Streams of cars and people filled the area. Abe arrived at about 11:17 a.m. and took the platform at around 11:29.

    (Mainichi)

    About a dozen police officers were placed at the scene, with one member of the Metropolitan Police Department's Security Police (SP) division and three Nara Prefectural Police guards by Abe on the strip. Yamagami, meanwhile, was standing to the rear right of Abe, surveying the scene from about 15 meters away.

    One minute and 11 seconds into Abe's speech, Yamagami started moving. He went along the sidewalk next to the roundabout, walking away from Abe, then stopped and looked in his direction. Yamagami then began moving again, crossed the roundabout and walked onto the road. Reaching into his bag, he pulled out a gun, moved directly behind Abe and fired a shot at him from about 7 meters away. It appears that no one tried to restrain Yamagami while all of this was going on.

    As Yamagami approached, a police officer standing guard behind Abe had been facing to the rear right, and Yamagami was in the guard's blind spot as he moved to the left behind the former prime minister. The other three police officers were looking to the left, right and front of Abe. A security officer in a supervisory role was stationed near the edge of the roundabout, but his gaze was to the front of Abe, and he didn't notice Yamagami.

    The first shot didn't hit Abe directly, and so Yamagami moved closer, standing about 5 meters behind him, and as Abe turned around he fired a second shot. Just before he fired, a Security Police officer to the left rear and a guard held up bulletproof bags and tried to protect Abe from the assailant, but they couldn't do so in time. Other guards then rushed toward Yamagami and held him down, but Abe had already collapsed and lost consciousness.

    (Mainichi)

    -- Changes to security disposition that weren't conveyed

    According to investigative sources, the guards initially mistook the sound of the first gunshot for a tire blowout. An officer standing behind Abe was quoted as saying during an investigation, "I was paying attention to bicycles and carts, and I didn't notice the suspect." Immediately before Abe took the stage, this officer was instructed to move inside the strip with him and pay attention to the front due to the growing crowd size. But this change was not conveyed to the supervising officer. The speech location required 360-degree monitoring, but events suggest security to Abe's rear was neglected.

    It has furthermore emerged that the security plans for the event were drawn up hastily. It was not until the evening of the previous day, July 7, that it was decided Abe would visit Nara. Nara Prefectural Police were notified by the LDP, and immediately afterward police conducted a preliminary inspection of the site where Abe would speak. It was only several hours before Abe's speech commenced that the prefectural police chief and others settled on the security plans. The National Police Agency is examining security problems and is set to compile a report in August.

    -- Homemade weapon resembled double-barreled shotgun

    (Mainichi)

    The gun used in the shooting was made by Yamagami himself. It was roughly 40 centimeters long and 20 cm tall, and consisted of two pipes secured to a board with vinyl tape. An electrical cord connected to a battery was used to ignite the gunpower inside the weapon, with the pressure of the gas shooting pellets out. The weapon could fire six pellets at the pull of a trigger, and was designed to fire two shots in succession, like a shotgun.

    According to investigative sources, Yamagami produced at least six homemade guns between the spring of 2021 and February 2022. The gunpowder he allegedly used was black gunpowder, which is found in fireworks. He told investigators that he made it by mixing agricultural fertilizer with soil and other materials. He had rented an apartment and a garage beside the condominium where he lived, and he is believed to have used these locations as bases for making gunpowder.

    Yamagami is thought to have test-fired the guns in the mountains in the city of Nara, where steel drums and boards with pellet holes in them were found. About 90 meters from where the weapon was fired at the scene of the crime, a metal fragment believed to be a stray pellet was found lodged in the wall of a multistory parking garage. Despite the weapon's crude appearance, investigators believe it was highly lethal.

    -- Suspect initially targeted head of religious group with Molotov cocktail.

    Tetsuya Yamagami is transferred for a psychiatric evaluation, in the city of Nara on July 25, 2022. (Mainichi/Daiki Takikawa)

    After the shooting, it emerged that the suspect harbored deep resentment toward the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, more commonly known by its former name, the Unification Church. "My mother made huge donations to the group, and it ruined our family," Yamagami was quoted as saying.

    Yamagami's mother joined the religious group about 30 years ago, and made donations totaling some 100 million yen (about $750,000 in today's dollars), going bankrupt. "I resented the religious group from around my teens," Yamagami reportedly told police.

    Initially Yamagami planned to target the church's leader, and in October 2019 he planned to attack her when she came to Japan, but gave up because he was unable to get into the venue where she was appearing. After that, the Unification Church head's trips to Japan stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    It was then that Yamagami turned his attention to Abe. The former prime minister sent a video message to a group closely associated with the Unification Church in September 2021, and it is believed that Yamagami learned about this the following spring.

    (Mainichi)

    On July 3, Yamagami began searching online for where Abe was touring to give speeches for the upper house election. At around 4 a.m. on July 7, he test-fired a gun near a Unification Church-related facility in Nara, and then boarded a bullet train and headed to the city of Okayama, as Abe had been scheduled to give a private speech for an upper house election candidate at Okayama Civic Hall. However, he could not get through the tight security at the hall, and again gave up. On his way home, he learned online about Abe's scheduled speech in Nara the following day.

    Shortly before 10 a.m. on July 8, Yamagami boarded a train at Kintetsu Shin-Omiya Station, near his home, and got off at Yamato-Saidaiji Station, one stop away. About an hour and a half later he allegedly shot Abe from behind, and was arrested at the scene.

    Yamagami has testified, "I had no choice but to choose Mr. Abe as a murder target," but examination of how his resentment toward the religious group turned into the violent act of killing Abe is still needed. The Nara District Public Prosecutors Office will keep Yamagami detained until November to evaluate his psychiatric condition at the time of the killing.

    (Reporting by Mainichi Shimbun; digital illustrations by Rie Kamijo)

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