TOKYO -- A suspected right-wing extremist fired a shot yards away from former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa yesterday in apparent protest over Mr. Hosokowa's open apologies for Japan's actions in World War II.
Mr. Hosokawa was not harmed. The bullet hit the ceiling of a Tokyo hotel, where he had spoken at a political party meeting.
Security guards quickly tackled the gunman, who was identified as Masakatsu Nozoe, 52. He later told police that he was upset with Mr. Hosokawa's statements on Japan's role during World War II and his economic policies, Japanese news reports said.
Police refused to confirm the reports, but they said that Mr. Nozoe was believed to be a member of an extremist right-wing group and that the shooting may have been politically motivated.
Shortly after his election last summer, Mr. Hosokawa became the first Japanese prime minister to candidly state that Japan had waged a war of aggression during the 1930s and 1940s. He offered apologies on behalf of Japan for the consequent suffering and encouraged revelations about suspected atrocities.
The comments were widely applauded throughout Asia and broadly endorsed even in Japan. But they were deeply resented by a small fringe of ultra-nationalists, commonly referred to as the country's right wing, who believe that the expansionist policies in China and Southeast Asia were proper and that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a justified pre-emptive strike against the United States.
Since Mr. Hosokawa's resignation last month in the midst of government gridlock and allegations of financial improprieties, the forthrightness that marked his tenure has receded.
A trip next month by Japanese Emperor Akihito to the United States had included a stop at Pearl Harbor, planned by the Hosokawa administration. That has been canceled by the administration of Mr. Hosokawa's successor, Tsutomu Hata.
Japan has hundreds of right-wing groups that make no apologies for the nation's militant past. They advance their views by driving around in vans with speakers, but they do not have a wide following and generally have been nonviolent.
Since late last year, however, that appears to have changed. The liberal Asahi newspaper has been attacked several times recently, including an incident last month in which hostages were taken and held for several hours. In the fall, a Japanese right-wing leader in the same group committed suicide while visiting Asahi, using a handgun.
That incident and yesterday's raise strong questions about Japan's vaunted control of firearms. It is commonly thought that the major crime syndicates have ample supplies, but it is rare that they are used against outsiders.
Flush with confidence, the local police have been slowly reducing security for former prime ministers, in some cases eliminating it altogether -- but not for Mr. Hosokawa.
According to sources quoted by the Kyodo wire service, threats against Mr. Hosokawa have been made since last summer by right-wing groups.
Police official Kiyotaka Osaki said the shot was fired from about 10 yards away from Mr. Hosokawa.
"I'm just glad no one was injured," Mr. Hosokawa said after the attack. He declined to comment on the gunman's possible motive.