TOKYO (Reuters) - The mayor of the Japanese city of Nagasaki died early on Wednesday after being gunned down by a suspected gangster, stunning a nation where shootings are extremely rare.
Itcho Ito, 61, seeking re-election to a fourth term in an election this Sunday, was shot at least twice in the back outside his campaign office on Tuesday evening. Doctors said two bullets had reached his heart.
As mayor of the second city to suffer an atomic bombing near the end of World War Two, Ito was a strong advocate of Japan sticking to its decades-old ban on nuclear weapons.
His death sent shock waves across a nation where gun control laws are strict and violent attacks on politicians are infrequent.
Police arrested Tetsuya Shiroo, 59, who they said was the head of a local gang affiliated with Japan’s largest “yakuza” group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, and seized a revolver he had with him.
The motive for the shooting remained unclear, and police declined to comment on details of the case.
Some media said Shiroo had been upset at the city’s handling of a traffic accident four years ago in which his car was damaged as it passed a public works construction site. Other reports said Shiroo believed the city was denying contracts to a construction company to which his gang was closely linked.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced the incident, as media expressed concern that the death would stifle freedom of speech in campaigns for local election across Japan on Sunday.
“The atrocity committed during an election campaign is a challenge to democracy and it must never be forgiven,” Abe told reporters. “We must eradicate violence like this resolutely.”
But these comments came some 12 hours after the shooting, and later he responded to criticism that he had seemed to lack a sense of crisis right after the incident, when he made only a terse statement calling for a thorough investigation.
“I don’t think we should be criticizing each other about something like this,” said Abe, whose leadership abilities have been questioned before.
“It was 10 minutes after the incident took place (that I commented), so I felt that making the facts clear came first,” he added, noting that a Molotov cocktail had once been thrown against his house during an election campaign.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was shocked to learn of the assassination of Itoh, a leader of an international campaign of Mayors For Peace that calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
“As mayor of the second city that had been destroyed by atomic weapons in 1945, Mayor Itoh was a champion of peace for a world where nuclear war would never happen again,” Ban said in a statement.
Calling the incident “base terror,” the Asahi newspaper said: “If the use of violence is tolerated when others do not do as one says, the freedom of speech will be lost. It risks pushing the country back to its wrong, dark years before the war.”
Later on Wednesday, mourners offered flowers and prayed at the site of the shooting. The flag at the city office was at half-staff, and city workers observed a moment of silence.
Ito’s predecessor was also shot and seriously injured in 1990 by a member of a right-wing group after he made comments that the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito should be held responsible for World War Two.
Japan has strict gun control laws, and firearms are mostly in the hands of hunters or yakuza gangsters.
Yakuza members are known for their short, tightly permed hair, elaborately tattooed backs and missing little fingers — from digit-cutting rituals held to apologize for misdeeds and show loyalty to the boss.
Police figures show yakuza official membership numbered 41,500 in 2006, down slightly from 2005, but the number of hangers-on rose marginally to 43,200.
The last known murder of a politician in Japan was in October 2002, when lower house member Koki Ishii was stabbed to death by a member of a right-wing group in front of his home.
Nagasaki, on the southernmost main island of Kyushu some 1,000 km (600 miles) southwest of Tokyo, was the second city to suffer an atomic bombing by the United States, on August 9, 1945.
Ito had previously been critical of U.S. nuclear arms policies. Last year, on the anniversary of the atomic bombing, he criticized Iran and North Korea for their nuclear programs and had harsh words for the United States for failing to halt nuclear proliferation.
Ito’s son-in-law said late on Wednesday that he would stand for office in his place, vowing to carry on his policies.
Additional reporting by Teruaki Ueno and Elaine Lies