Abe, 67, was a towering political presence even after he stepped down as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, and he was campaigning ahead of elections scheduled for Sunday. He had just begun a speech in the western city of Nara, near Kyoto, when gunfire was heard around 11:30 a.m. local time (10:30 p.m. Thursday ET).
Officials said that one person had been apprehended in relation to the shooting.
Abe was rushed to Nara Medical University Hospital after suffering cardio and pulmonary arrest. The hospital announced his death shortly after 5 a.m. ET.
Dr. Hidetada Fukushima, a professor of emergency medicine at the hospital, said Abe had two gunshot wounds and no vital signs when he arrived less than an hour after the shooting. Life-saving measures including blood transfusions were unsuccessful, he said, and Abe was pronounced dead at 4:03 a.m. ET.
Addressing reporters later, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Abe had been killed in “a despicable and barbaric manner.”
“I had been praying that he would somehow survive this, but our prayers were in vain, and to be receiving this news — I just have no words, only that I would like to offer my deepest condolences,” Kishida said, his eyes red and teary.
Kishida said campaigning in the election for the upper house of Parliament would continue on Saturday. Abe, who stepped down in 2020, was campaigning for other members of the governing conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) but was not a candidate himself.
“I believe that free and fair elections, which are the foundation of democracy, must absolutely be upheld,” Kishida said.
Abe dominated Japanese politics for the best part of a decade and has remained politically active since his resignation, leading the biggest faction in his party.
The incident sent shockwaves through Japan, where gun violence is extremely rare. Handguns are banned in the country and people must undergo extensive tests, training and background checks to obtain and keep shotguns and air rifles.
Iwao Horii, an LDP member of the upper house representing Nara, was standing next to Abe when the former prime minister was shot. “We heard two loud sounds while he was talking and he fell immediately after that,” Horii said at a news conference. He added that Abe was unresponsive when emergency medics tried to resuscitate him.
“This is something that shakes the very foundations of democracy and cannot be forgiven,” he said.
The shooting was also condemned by the country’s main opposition party, the center-left Constitutional Democrats, with party leader Kenta Izumi calling it “an act of terrorism.”