Behind the Nagasaki Mayor's Shooting

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The mayor of Nagasaki, Iccho Itoh, was shot and seriously wounded Tuesday night, while campaigning for re-election in this southwestern Japanese city. The 61-year-old, running for his fourth term as mayor, was shot twice in the back near his campaign office at around 7:50 p.m. local time, and was taken to the hospital, where he remains in critical condition. Itoh's heart had stopped, according to NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, but there has been no further news about his condition as of midnight.

Police apprehended Itoh's attacker moments after the shooting. They've identified him as Tetsuya Shiroo, 59, and said he was a senior member of a gang affiliated with Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's biggest yakuza criminal syndicate. Police say Shiroo admitted to the shooting upon his arrest. His motive remains unclear: local media are reporting that Shiroo had a personal grudge against the mayor and his local government, but at least one anti-nuclear activist wondered whether there might be a political motive.

In February 2003, Shiroo reportedly had a car accident that he blamed on construction under way near a city street. When his insurance company refused to pay his claim, Shiroo sued the Nagasaki government and eventually the mayor, reportedly claiming that Itoh had fabricated the original accident report. The case was thrown out of court, but Shiroo's anger against Itoh may not have cooled — TV Asahi reported that it had recently received a letter from the suspect claiming that the mayor was involved in corrupt practices.

Shootings are extremely rare in Japan — there were only 53 last year — but it's not the first time in recent memory that political violence has struck Nagasaki, the second Japanese city on which the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb in 1945. In 1990, Itoh's predecessor, Hitoshi Motoshima, was shot by a member of a far-right-wing group after stating that Emperor Hirohito bore responsibility for Japan's actions in World War II. (Hirohito had been exempted from any charges at the Tokyo War Crimes trials, and his guilt — or innocence — remains highly controversial in Japan to this day.)

"We're shocked that a mayor of Nagasaki has been shot for the second time," said anti-nuclear activist Makoto Matsumoto. "If it turns out that [the shooter] was a right-winger or a person with ties to organized crime, it shows that the nuclear bomb issue is still with us."

Yakuza gangs have ties to right-wing groups, but right now there's no evidence that the shooting was politically motivated. Itoh was a liberal and a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons — a political necessity for any leader of Nagasaki. At the 60th anniversary of the city's bombing, Itoh angrily criticized the U.S. for continuing to maintain a massive atomic arsenal, and urged Japan to get out from under the American nuclear umbrella. (Tokyo has no nuclear weapons of its own, and depends on the U.S. for most of its security.) After North Korea tested a nuclear device last October, several conservative Japanese politicians raised the possibility of Japan developing its own nuclear arsenal; Itoh strongly criticized the statements.

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has called upon Japan to revise its pacifist constitution, the country has taken a turn to the right, and political intimidation by fringe rightist groups isn't unknown. In August the house of senior legislator Koichi Kato was burned to the ground in an arson attack, in what was taken as a warning against Kato's outspoken liberal views. It remains to be seen whether Itoh's shooting was another political warning, or just a personal grudge.

With reporting by Toko Sekiguchi/Tokyo