Japan mayor dies in suspected gangster shooting

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Tokyo, Apr 18: The mayor of the Japanese city of Nagasaki died today hours 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 evening. Doctors said two bullets had reached his heart.

Ito's 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 a senior member 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 he had believed the city was denying contracts to a construction company to which his gang was closely linked.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced the shooting, as media expressed concern that the death would stifle freedom of speech in campaigns for local elections 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.''

Base Terror

 The Asahi newspaper said in an editorial that ''such base terror cannot be tolerated''.

''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.'' Kazuo Kitagawa of the New Komei Party, junior partner in the ruling coalition, told reporters: ''The candidates and parties should not waver, but stoutly state their own views to voters.

''This must not have any effect on the elections,'' he said.

Ito's predecessor was also shot and seriously injured in 1990 by a far-right activist after he commented 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 apologise 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 Tokyo home.

Nagasaki, on the southern island of Kyushu some 1,000 km (600 miles) from Tokyo, was the second city to suffer an atomic bombing by the United States, on August 9, 1945.

Mayor Ito was critical of US nuclear arms policies and a strong advocate of Japan's sticking to its long-standing ban on nuclear arms.

Last year, on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city, Ito criticised Iran and North Korea for their nuclear programmes and had harsh words for the United States for failing to halt nuclear proliferation.

Reuters

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