Despite having stepped back as Prime Minister almost two years ago, Shinzo Abe is still the biggest character in Japanese politics. Having set the record for the longest uninterrupted stint in office in the nation’s history, the former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party ushered in an era of stability after years of turnover at the top.

That is probably why, at 11.30am on Friday morning, Abe had been asked to give a speech in the western city of Nara in support of a local candidate in Sunday’s elections to the country’s upper house. As he did, a man walked up behind him and opened fire with both barrels of what appears to have been a homemade shotgun, welded together from piping and wires.

The attack has sent shockwaves through Japan, where politics is often terse but never violent. With one of the lowest rates of gun crime in the world, even the elite security detail who swooped on the assailant were carrying only batons, firearms evidently having been considered unnecessary. Abe was airlifted to hospital, with local media reporting that he has died. 

An outpouring of tributes from world leaders has followed, with Britain’s outgoing Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, saying that he was “utterly appalled and saddened to hear about the despicable attack.”

A personality politician, Abe endeared himself to many by popping out of a massive pipe at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics dressed as Super Mario to promote his country’s forthcoming hosting of the games. He later revealed he hadn’t really wanted to take part, and had been forced to wait at the bottom of the pipe while the show dragged on, but that it had softened his image on the world stage.

However, his critics don’t see him as being so innocuous, and many have also aired their grievances about his politics in the wake of the attack. José Sanchez, a PhD researcher at Duke University, wrote on Twitter that those shocked by the assassination attempt should “stop feeling bad” because “Shinzo Abe is a right-wing nationalist and apologist for Japan’s myriad crimes… during the Second World War.”

That assessment mirrors ones meted out by the country’s left-wing opposition groups throughout his time in office, as well as concerns raised by the country’s neighbours in Korea and China, which bore the brunt of Imperial Japan’s brutality until 1945. Specifically, he has stood accused of whitewashing the abduction and rape of “comfort women” by the army in occupied territories, the slaughter of civilians and the torture of POWs.

In reality, Abe’s record on the subject is complex. “I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those people who perished both at home and abroad,” he said at an event in 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender. “I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal sincere condolences.”

Yet just two years prior, he made a rare official visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, dedicated to the country’s war dead and controversial for memorialising more than 1,000 convicted Second World War war criminals. China expressed outrage over the trip, with a statement arguing that it amounted to “an effort to glorify the Japanese militaristic history of external invasion and colonial rule and to challenge the outcome of the war.”

Abe’s case has also not been helped by the fact his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was himself accused of war crimes during his tenure as an official in Manchukuo, the Second World War-era puppet state Tokyo created in north-eastern China. He was ultimately never charged, and the US government not only released him, but helped him become Japan’s Prime Minister in 1957 in an effort to beat the Socialist opposition party. Three years later, Kishi was stabbed six times by a right-wing assailant, but survived the attack.

Half a century on, his grandson has been accused of using his official schedule to subtly honour Kishi, timing major events to coincide with anniversaries in his life. At the same time though, Abe has hardly been secretive about his desire to break free of Japan’s post-War consensus and re-establish the nation as a military power.

Officially a pacifist state under the terms of the constitution written by the victorious Allies and banned from maintaining an army, Japan under Abe Japan has built up a colossal “Self Defence Force” numbering a quarter of a million personnel and boasting some of the world’s most advanced weapons of war. Describing his doctrine as one of “proactive peace,” under his tenure Tokyo solidified its commitment to channelling Chinese regional military power.

The current Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, hasn’t deviated from this path, and is contesting the elections – the ones Abe was campaigning for – on the back of a pledge to “substantially increase” Japan’s defence spending. “There have been attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force in East Asia, making regional security increasingly severe,” he said in May.

That self-evident policy of moving away from pacifism, championed by Abe, has elicited dozens of protests in Japan over the years. Much of the country’s post-war identity was defined by its commitment to peace, even if its own role in the horrors of the Second World War was never really widely accepted. Instead, many see Japan as much the victim of aggression as the perpetrator, and the fact the country is the only one in the world to have faced nuclear bombs landing on its cities is often cited as reason enough to put an end to conflicts.

Later on Friday, the Ministry of Defence identified Abe’s assailant as a 41-year old former navy sailor, sparking speculation he could have links to ultranationalist groups that felt the former Prime Minister went nowhere near far enough to break out of the status quo imposed on the country after its 1945 defeat. What is clear, however, is that Abe changed Japanese politics forever, and by arming the nation has unleashed consequences that are a long way off being fully understood.