TOKYO—Few 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 perceived as something of a folk hero by adoring fans across the country.
This month, the cover of the weekly Japanese magazine SPA! was a large feature on the cult of hero worship for Tetsuya Yamagami, the 42-year-old man who shot Abe on July 8. There are now swooning internet fans known as “Yamagami Girls” and a surprising outpouring of sympathy for him. Cash, gifts, and food have been sent to him in jail from supporters across the nation. There’s even an online petition calling for a reduced sentence for Yamagami that has garnered thousands of signatures.
The eight-page article in SPA! about the worship of Yamagami is a magnum opus on the complicated factors that have played into the elevation of the assassin from “terrorist” to “noble vigilante” by some Japanese nationals.
The headline in garish gold letters doesn’t pull any punches: “The man who attacked Abe, [Tetsuya] Yamagami is now worshipped. This god of the lower classes of Japan evokes sympathy—[from those who have also known] poverty, religion, loneliness, [and had] poisonous parents.”
After the former prime minister was killed, Yamagami claimed that his real intent was to call attention to the deep ties between Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Unification Church–a South Korean Christian cult. It appears he has wildly succeeded. There is a thunderstorm of anger enveloping the cult and lawmakers who have cuddled up to them. Every day, LDP politicians, including Japan’s current prime minister, are taken to task by the media for their alleged servitude to the church.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has seen his support rates plummet to as low as 36 percent since the shooting, all while support for Yamagami seems to grow.
In its heyday, the Unification Church sucked so much money out of Japanese worshippers 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 had been pushed into poverty by monetary demands from the organization.
The petition calling for a reduction of the sentence to be handed out to Yamagami was launched a week after Abe’s assassination. The individual who started the petition has shied away from the limelight, but what we do know is that she is a woman in her fifties and identifies as part of the “second generation” of the Unification Church, just like Yamagami.
The petition now has more than 8,000 signatures. The person who is said to have launched the petition on the site says that she has “warm feelings for Yamagami in light of his harsh upbringing,” and that “he is a very serious, hard-working person who has room for rehabilitation. We ask that you give a generous view to Tetsuya Yamagami, who has been living under these circumstances for as long as he can remember.”
In the comments section, many passionately defend Yamagami and praise him for bringing attention to claims of collusion between the cult and the ruling party. “Thanks to Yamagami, the darkness in this country has been brought into the open,” one user wrote. “If the media had done their job and exposed the Unification Church [and its political ties] he would have never had to make that decision,” reads another comment.
Part of the reason Yamagami continues to garner popularity may have to do with Shinzo Abe and the LDP’s harnessing of anti-Korean sentiment to solidify power. The revelations that the LDP and Abe used a South Korea-based cult to win elections has stirred xenophobic ire and shouts of hypocrisy.
Technically, Yamagami could face the death penalty for assassinating the former prime minister. In practice, the unwritten rule is that an assailant has to kill two or more people before being given the death penalty. Recently, Tomohiro Kato, who killed seven people on a rampage in Akihabara in 2008, was executed after 14 years on death row. It 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 the assassination of Abe. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Kawasaki rolls her eyes at a mention of the phrase.
“To an extent, there are always people who become infatuated with individuals who commit murder or whatever crime. The infatuated think that they alone can reach an understanding of the outlaw. So they get married on paper with criminals in prison. Yamagami Girls represent the same thing,” Kawasaki says. “But there are also many other reasons why he has evoked sympathy from the public as well. In no way are his actions excusable, but he has struck a chord of admiration for semi-suicidal vigilantes in Japanese culture.”