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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Murdered mayor was key nuclear foe

Nagasaki yakuza bore a grudge?

Staff writers

One of the leading voices against nuclear proliferation was silenced Wednesday when Nagasaki Mayor Itcho Ito died from gunshot wounds. He was 61.

News photo
Nagasaki Mayor Itcho Ito's coffin is carried into his family home Wednesday. He was pronounced dead earlier in the day after being gunned down by a gangster Tuesday night. KYODO PHOTO

Local yakuza Tetsuya Shiroo, 59, was arrested on the spot after Ito was gunned down on the busy street Tuesday evening in front of JR Nagasaki Station as the mayor was campaigning for a fourth term. Shiroo, who reportedly was trying to flee, owned up to the slaying and a pistol was seized. Police are investigating a possible motive.

Early indications were that the assassination stemmed from a personal vendetta and not due to the mayor's political beliefs, unlike the 1990 shooting of Ito's predecessor, Hitoshi Motoshima, who survived that attack by a rightwing extremist angry over his remark that the late Emperor Hirohito was partially responsible for the war.

It is part of the job of political leaders in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only two cities to have had an atomic bomb dropped on them, to oppose nuclear weapons. Ito had a particularly high profile as mayor and was widely respected.

News photo
A woman mourns the slaying of Nagasaki Mayor Itcho Ito on Wednesday outside his home in the city. KYODO PHOTO

"He was well-known for his position, and his loss is most tragic," said Nishio Baku, codirector at the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, an antinuclear organization in Tokyo that compiles information on nuclear energy.

Rebecca Johnson, founding director of the London-based Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy and a long-term acquaintance of Ito, told Kyodo News, "This kind of violence must not be allowed to silence the important voices of peace and integrity like Mayor Ito's."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday denounced the murder, calling it "a challenge to democracy."

"A heinous act committed during an election campaign is a challenge to democracy. We will have to be determined and eradicate this kind of violence," Abe told reporters Wednesday morning.

Soon after being elected mayor in 1995, Ito told the International Court of Justice at The Hague that the indiscriminate nature of nuclear blasts, their inevitable affects on civilians and destruction of the natural environment, make their use "a manifest infraction of international law."

Last year, he publicly criticized the United States for allowing civilian nuclear cooperation with India, a reversal of Washington's long-standing policy of nonproliferation of atomic power in India.

Also last year, Ito voiced strong indignation over North Korea's October nuclear test, but was equally critical of the political hawks here who said Japan should develop its own nuclear capability in response.

Ito was pronounced dead at 2:28 a.m. Wednesday at Nagasaki University Hospital, Nagasaki Prefectural Police said.

The mayor died of blood loss after a four-hour operation to repair damage to his heart and lungs. He was attached to an artificial heart-lung machine during that time and never regained consciousness. His family, including his wife, Toshiko, 61, were at his side.

"We offered the best treatment we could, but were unable to sustain blood circulation and (the mayor's) heart stopped," the hospital director, Katsumi Eguchi, told reporters early Wednesday.

The man held in the assassination is the deputy boss of Suishin-kai, a mob affiliate of Yamaguchi-gumi, the top underworld syndicate. It is the only direct affiliate based in Nagasaki. On Wednesday, however, Suishin-kai, which is on a police watch list, said will disband.

At 7:52 p.m. Tuesday, Shiroo allegedly shot the mayor twice in the back from a distance of about 1 meter after Ito stepped out of vehicle in front of his campaign office next to JR Nagasaki Station, police and his office said.

Both bullets entered the mayor's body below his right shoulder blade and punctured one of his lungs and his heart before stopping at his breast bone, according to police and the hospital. Members of Ito's campaign staff jumped on Shiroo and held him down as he tried to flee. He reportedly admitted right away to shooting the mayor and was arrested for attempted murder, a charge later updated to murder. His pistol was also seized.

Police said Shiroo told them he was irritated by the city's handling of damage done to his car at a construction site that was overseen by the municipal government.

"I could not stand the response by the city and was infuriated," Shiroo was quoted by police as saying. "I did it, wishing to kill the mayor and thinking I should do it even at the cost of my life."

City officials said Shiroo had visited the city office more than 30 times to protest the city's refusal to continue negotiating with him over damage to his car he claimed was from a cave-in at a construction site on a city street in 2003, officials said.

According to the city, the only damage was to the vehicle's fender, but Shiroo initially demanded 600,000 yen and ended up trying to get more than 2 million yen, at which point the city broke off negotiations with him in January 2005 after consulting with police, they said.

Shiroo continued to pester officials, filing a criminal complaint against the mayor and the official in charge of the case, and posting his claims on his Web site. No one reported the man's behavior to the mayor as he was perceived to be a minor problem, the city said.

Police raided Shiroo's Nagasaki home, Suishin-kai's office and several other sites starting at about 5 a.m. Wednesday.

Former police officers in Osaka and Kobe, home to Yamaguchi-gumi, and reporters who cover the yakuza said they doubted Ito's murder had been sanctioned by the mob's top bosses.

Authorizing a hit on such a high-profile figure would invite a yakuza crackdown and would cause a groundswell of public support for tougher antigang laws, said one former Osaka police officer who asked not to be identified.

Unaffiliated with any party, Ito had been widely expected to win a fourth term in Sunday's election. There are three other candidates -- university lecturer Tomoko Maekawa, 59, housewife Etsuko Maekawa, 57, both of whom are running as independents, and former city assembly member Seiichi Yamamoto, 71, of the Japanese Communist Party.

Ito's son-in-law, Makoto Yokoo, 40, a political news reporter for the Nishinippon Shimbun, based in the city of Fukuoka, announced Wednesday he will take the mayor's place on the ballot. He will campaign under tight security and is expected to be elected.

"We must not remain indifferent when someone resorts to violence against a person because he cannot have his way," Yokoo told reporters in Nagasaki. "Somebody has to take over what Itcho Ito was trying to accomplish."

Other politicians have died during their campaigns, and family members took their places and won. Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, who was running in the 1980 election for both Diet chambers, and Liberal Democratic Party member Saburo Toida, who was up for a seat in the 1996 House of Representatives election, both died of heart attacks. Ohira's son-in-law and Toida's second son took their places and were elected.

Information from Kyodo added

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