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State funeral for former Japan PM Shinzo Abe despite the anger

World leaders have honored Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated in July, at a controversial state funeral.

September 27, 2022
27 September 2022

Japan’s hawkish former leader Shinzo Abe has been honored by a rare and divisive state funeral that was full of militaristic presentation like soldiers carrying his ashes in a box brought by his widow and praise of his nine-year premiership.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said the publicly financed ceremony was a deserved honor for Japan’s longest-serving modern political leader, but it has deeply split public opinion and was met with angry protests.

The event attended by US Vice President Kamala Harris, Japan’s Crown Prince Akishino and other foreign and Japanese dignitaries.

Akie Abe, wife of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, carries a cinerary urn as she arrives at the state of funeral of her husband. (Kiyoshi Ota/Pool Photo via AP)

It began with Akie Abe, in a black formal kimono, walking slowly behind Kishida into the funeral venue, carrying the urn in a wooden box wrapped in a purple cloth with gold stripes. Soldiers in white uniforms took Abe’s ashes and placed them on a pedestal filled with white and yellow chrysanthemum flowers and decorations.

Attendants stood while a military band played the Kimigayo national anthem, then observed a moment of silence before a video praising Abe’s tenure.

Footage included his 2006 parliamentary speech vowing to build a “beautiful Japan” and his “Toward the Alliance of Hope” speech at the US Congress in 2015. It also included his visits to disaster-hit northern Japan after the March 2011 tsunami, and his 2016 Super Mario impersonation in Rio de Janeiro to promote the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivered the eulogy. (Franck Robichon/Pool Photo via AP)

Kishida, in his 12-minute eulogy, praised Abe as an aspiring politician with a clear vision for postwar economic growth and development of Japan and the world, and promoting the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” as a counter to China’s rise.

Kishida, as he looked up a large photo of smiling Abe, said as a fellow lawmaker elected in the same year in 1993, Abe’s loss came too soon.

“You were a person who should have lived much longer,” Kishida said. “I had a firm belief that you were to contribute as a compass to show the future direction of Japan and the rest of the world for 10 or 20 more years.”

US Vice President Kamala Harris arrives for the state funeral for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (Franck Robichon/Pool Photo via AP)
Former Australian Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull, from left, Tony Abbott, John Howard and current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida before Shinzo Abe’s funeral. (AP Photo/Hiro Komae, Pool)

Harris sat in the third row next to Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, during the ceremony, and they later joined others by placing a branch of chrysanthemum flowers on a table set before the pedestal.

Australia, which had established strong ties with Japan under Abe, was represented by four prime ministers – John Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and current leader, Anthony Albanese.

Abe was cremated in July after a private funeral at a Tokyo temple days after he was assassinated while giving a campaign speech on a street in Nara, a city in western Japan.

The controversy

Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe making a campaign speech in Nara shortly before he was shot on July 8. (Kyodo News via AP, File)

Tokyo was under maximum security for the state funeral, especially near the Budokan hall venue.

At a peaceful protest march downtown, hundreds of people marched toward the hall, some banging drums and many shouting or holding banners and signs stating their opposition.

“Shinzo Abe has not done a single thing for regular people,” participant Kaoru Mano said.

The government maintains that the ceremony is not meant to force anyone to honor Abe. But the undemocratic decision to give him the rare honor with imperial ties, the cost, and controversies about his and the ruling party’s ties to the ultra-conservative Unification Church have fueled controversy about the event.

“One big problem is that there was no proper approval process,” retiree Shin Watanabe said during the demonstration. “I’m sure there are various views. But I don’t think it’s forgivable that they will force a state funeral on us when so many of us are opposed.”

People leave flowers to former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe outside the Nippon Budokan on Tuesday. (Nicolas Datiche/Pool Photo via AP)

Hours before the ceremony, hundreds of people carrying bouquets queued for several blocks to lay flowers in a nearby park.

“I’m emotionally attached to him and I’ve been supporting the LDP, too,” Masayuki Aoki, a 70-year-old business owner, said, recalling that he had shared a fist bump with Abe at a campaign stop in Yokohama days before his assassination. “I had to come to offer him flowers.”

Political reaction

Japan’s main political opposition parties boycotted the funeral, which critics say is a reminder of how prewar imperialist governments used state funerals to fan nationalism.

In what some see as an attempt to further justify the honor for Abe, Kishida this week has held meetings with visiting foreign leaders in what he calls “funeral diplomacy.” The talks are meant to strengthen ties as Japan faces regional and global challenges, including threats from China, Russia and North Korea.

He was to meet about 40 foreign leaders through Wednesday, but no Group of Seven leaders are attending.

The Unification Church

Kishida has been criticized for forcing through the costly event and over the widening controversy about Abe’s and the governing party’s decades of close ties with the ultra-conservative Unification Church, accused of raking in huge donations by brainwashing adherents.

Abe’s alleged assassin reportedly told police he killed the politician because of his links to the church; he said his mother ruined his life by giving away the family’s money to the church.

Tetsuya Yamagami, bottom, is detained near the site of where Shinzo Abe was shot. .(Katsuhiko Hirano/The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP)

“The fact that the close ties between the LDP and the Unification Church may have interfered with policymaking processes is seen by the Japanese people as a greater threat to democracy than Abe’s assassination,” wrote Hosei University political science professor Jiro Yamaguchi in a recent article.

Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped the church take root in Japan and is now seen as a key figure in the scandal. Opponents say holding a state funeral for Abe is equivalent to an endorsement of ruling party ties to the Unification Church.

A church spokesperson has apologised for any trouble it may have caused the people of Japan or LDP lawmakers and said it would crack down on any excessive soliciting of excessive donations. The church has also promised a quick response to complaints or requests for donation refunds.

Disclosures that at least 179 LDP members, include several high-profile lawmakers, have had ties to the church have sent Kishida’s ratings to their lowest since he took office about a year ago, raising the possibility his grip over the party could weaken, making it more difficult for him to deliver on his policy pledges.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says his ruling party will cut ties with the Unification Church following a widening scandal trigged by former leader Shinzo Abe’s assassination. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama, Pool)

Opposition to state funeral

Some 62 per cent of respondents in a recent poll by the Mainichi newspaper said they opposed holding a state funeral for Abe. Among the reasons respondents gave were that the former premier was not worthy of the honor, and the high price tag. The government estimates the cost at $12 million – more than six times an earlier estimate – but comments on social media show most believe it will cost more.

Holding a state funeral “was a big miscalculation” for Kishida, said Tomoaki Iwai, an expert on Japanese politics and professor emeritus at Nihon University.

“When he originally decided on the funeral there were a lot of people in favour, but then there were the reports of Abe’s involvement with the Unification Church, and so opposition grew.”

That public anger was gruesomely highlighted on Wednesday when a man in his 70s set himself on fire near the prime minister’s residence in an apparent protest at the state funeral, Japanese media reported. The man was taken to hospital, conscious.

Divisive Figure

Kishida has justified the ceremony by citing Abe’s long tenure and achievements at home and abroad.

The opposition to the funeral reflects how divisive Abe remains in Japanese society. While loved by nationalists and many on the right for his muscular defence and pro-market policies, he was reviled by many who want to keep the country’s pacifist constitution unchanged.

Attendees at the state funeral of assassinated former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe . (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, Pool)

Japan’s last fully state-funded funeral for an ex-premier was Shigeru Yoshida’s in 1967. Ceremonies since have been paid for by the state and the LDP.

Shinzo was Japan’s longest serving prime minister, but was divisive.(AP Photo/Ivan Fernandez, File)

Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Eisaku Sato, who oversaw Okinawa’s return to Japan from US control 50 years ago and was the longest-serving premier before Abe, did not have a state funeral when he died in 1975. The government felt there was no legal basis for it.

A private funeral for Abe was held on July 12, four days after his killing. For the public commemoration, 6000 guests are to gather at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan Hall, including over 190 foreign delegations. About 50 heads of state or government are expected, and media reports say Kishida may meet with around 30 of these..

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