TOKYO — Shinzo Abe, Japan’s most influential former prime minister, was stumping on behalf of a junior politician from his party near a train station in Japan’s old capital city of Nara on Friday morning when he collapsed, bleeding, on the street. He was shot in the neck, doctors said, by a gunman who later admitted he had come to kill him.
Less than six hours later, Mr. Abe, the longest serving leader in Japan’s history, was dead at age 67.
Until the assassination at the campaign stop on Friday, the public and Japanese news media had largely ignored the parliamentary election scheduled for Sunday, when Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party was expected to sail to victory.
Now the party will have to move forward in the polls without the man who guided its agenda for the last decade and had the power to anoint future leaders even after he left the prime minister’s office.
Fumio Kishida, the current prime minister, who rushed back to Tokyo from campaigning in northern Japan when he heard the news, called the assassination “an act of cowardly barbarism” in remarks to reporters after doctors from Nara Medical University Hospital announced Mr. Abe’s death. Vowing to go through with “a free and fair election that is the basis of democracy” on Sunday, Mr. Kishida said “to lose a towering politician who left behind enormous accomplishments in various areas is truly regrettable.”
The shooting comes at a pivotal moment for Japan, as it is trying to stake out a stronger leadership position in the region in the face of mounting threats from its neighbors in China and North Korea. And with images of extreme violence from Ukraine and the United States playing out on screens in Japan, the public is unsettled by the possibility that the nation they assumed was safe may not be after all.
Shortly after the shooting at 11:30 on Friday morning, police chased down and arrested Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, at the scene. He has been charged with murder. Police officials said he used a “homemade” gun and confessed that he had intended to kill Mr. Abe because he believed the former prime minister to have some association with a group against which Mr. Yamagami held “a grudge.”
In a news briefing on Friday night, police officials from the Nara prefectural office said Mr. Yamagami had made the double-barreled gun, about 16 inches long and 7 inches wide, and that police had found several similar weapons in his apartment near the site.
The authorities have not said what charges he will face or what penalty they will seek. Japan is one of the few highly developed countries that has capital punishment; six people have been executed by hanging in the past three years. The law allows the death penalty for murder, but it is rarely applied for a single killing.
Shock waves reverberated across Japan’s political establishment and among a general public unaccustomed to such violent crime, particularly in a country with some of the strictest gun laws in the world.
“I am in complete shock,” said Ayane Kubota, 37, commuting home from work in Tokyo and scrolling through Twitter to catch up on the news on Friday evening. “This is so un-Japanese. You never hear about gun violence here. On TV in the United States you hear about it all the time, but not here.”
Mr. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was attacked in an assassination attempt in 1960 shortly after he resigned as prime minister. He was stabbed six times in the thigh by a member of a small ultranationalist group, but unlike his grandson, survived.
On Friday in Nara, where a makeshift memorial for Mr. Abe was growing throughout the afternoon at the site of the shooting, Hijiri Mizokawa, 18, joined her father and grandmother to lay flowers for the fallen leader in a pile with slices of watermelon, candy and bottles of juice. “It’s so scary,” said Ms. Mizokawa, “I still can’t believe this kind of terror could happen in Japan.”
Condolences poured in from around the globe for Mr. Abe, who had forged relationships with world leaders during his nearly eight-year tenure. As a jet-setting diplomat, he worked closely with allies but also reached out to countries like Russia with which Japan had thorny relations. As the United States wavered in its commitment to Asia, Mr. Abe cast Japan as the regional leader upholding free trade and the rule of law against an increasingly aggressive China.
At home, Mr. Abe staked his legacy on trying to turn Japan into what he called a “normal” country, able to defend itself and even engage in combat after more than 70 years of pacifism imposed in a constitution written by postwar American occupiers. In Sunday’s election, the Liberal Democrats are running on a platform that includes Mr. Abe’s proposal to revise the constitution to explicitly acknowledge the existence of the country’s self-defense forces.
According to the Ministry of Defense, a man with the suspect’s name served in Japan’s marine self-defense forces for three years between 2002 and 2005.
Cellphone videos taken by bystanders at Friday morning’s campaign event showed a man in a gray T-shirt and khaki trousers standing quietly behind Mr. Abe as he first began to speak.
Standing on a riser set against a traffic barrier on a street close to a train station in Nara, Mr. Abe shook his fist and declaimed into a microphone as he praised Kei Sato, 43, who is running for re-election in the Upper House of Parliament.
Suddenly, people heard two loud bangs like the sound of tires blowing out. Masao Nakanishi, 80, who was standing in front of Mr. Abe, said he saw the former prime minister topple onto the street. Cellphone videos shown on NHK, the public broadcaster, showed the man in the gray shirt and khaki trousers, later identified as Mr. Yamagami, taking aim at Mr. Abe and firing, smoke billowing out from his gun. Police said Mr. Abe looked behind him after the first shot and then was hit by a second blast.
A campaign official screamed for help, begging for medical professionals and pleading for an oxygen mask or defibrillator, said Mr. Nakanishi.
Three men in suits, believed to be part of Mr. Abe’s security detail, pinned Mr. Yamagami to the ground. He had tossed aside what appeared in video and photos to be a crude, homemade gun.
Ambulances and fire engines rushed to the scene and as emergency workers administered CPR, Mr. Abe was covered with a large blue tarp. Emergency workers loaded him onto a stretcher, and under cover of the tarp, loaded him onto a medical evacuation helicopter that took him to Nara Medical University Hospital, where he landed, already in cardiopulmonary arrest, at 12:20 p.m.
Doctors worked all afternoon to stabilize him, but Hidetada Fukushima, the professor in charge of emergency medicine at the hospital, said that despite blood transfusions and efforts to stem massive hemorrhaging from his heart, Mr. Abe died shortly after 5 p.m., around the time his wife, Akie Abe, arrived at the hospital.
Political leaders from across the spectrum paid their respects. Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo who had sometimes tangled with Mr. Abe, was in tears as she described her shock and “great anger.”
Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a veteran of the Constitutional Democratic Party and a current candidate for the Upper House elections on Sunday, wrote on Twitter that she had often debated with Mr. Abe. “We battled against each other with our own beliefs many times,” she wrote. “That’s why I definitely cannot allow this violence that kills speech.”
Mr. Abe could be a divisive figure among the public for his right-wing views about constitutional reform, women’s rights to keep their names after marriage and historical revisionism about Japan’s wartime atrocities. On social media, he was attacked by some commenters even as he lay dying in the hospital.
But his political opponents quickly rose to his defense. Renho Saito, a former leader of an opposition party, canceled her campaign schedule on Friday and exhorted people to stop issuing “heartless comments” on social media.
“I would like to connect not with ideological beliefs, but with a desire to protect democracy, and to ensure that these outrages are not allowed to continue,” Ms. Saito wrote on Twitter.
In Nara early Friday evening, police officers cordoned off the shooting site as officers continued to collect fragments from the street and in the bushes lining the sidewalks. Behind yellow police tape, watermarks could be seen on the street, covering the blood stains from the morning.
Motoko Rich, Makiko Inoue and Hikari Hida reported from Tokyo, and Hisako Ueno from Nara, Japan.