Japan holds controversial state funeral for assassinated ex-PM Shinzo Abe

Foreign dignitaries on hand to pay last respects to the country’s longest-serving premier, as small protests held against ceremony opposed by most Japanese

The widow of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, Akie Abe (C), carries his ashes as she arrives for the start of his state funeral at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on September 27, 2022. (Philip Fong/Pool/AFP)
The widow of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, Akie Abe (C), carries his ashes as she arrives for the start of his state funeral at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on September 27, 2022. (Philip Fong/Pool/AFP)

TOKYO (AFP) — Japanese and foreign dignitaries paid tribute to assassinated former prime minister Shinzo Abe at a controversial state funeral on Tuesday, as long lines of people gathered to offer flowers and prayers.

Abe’s ashes, carried by his widow Akie, arrived at the storied Budokan venue in Tokyo, where a 19-gun salute sounded in honor of the slain former leader.

The motorcade carrying his remains had traveled from his widow’s home in the capital, past a row of white-uniformed armed troops who stood to attention.

Outside the Budokan, thousands of Japanese people stood in line as the ashes arrived, waiting to deliver flowers and say a prayer in two mourning tents.

Toru Sato, 71, leaned on his cane as he waited. “I only know Abe-san on TV. He worked so hard. His death was so tragic. I felt so sorry for him,” he told AFP.

Koji Takamori came all the way from northern Hokkaido with his nine-year-old son. “I wanted to thank him. He has done so much for Japan,” the 46-year-old said.

“The way he died was so shocking. To be honest, I also came because there has been so much opposition. It’s almost like I’m here to oppose those who are opposing this [funeral],” he added.

A photograph of Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe is displayed during his state funeral in the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on September 27, 2022. (Franck Robichon/Pool/AFP)

Those opponents were also out, albeit in much smaller numbers, marching near the tents before an expected demonstration in front of the parliament.

Abe was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and one of the country’s most recognizable political figures, known for cultivating international alliances and his “Abenomics” economic strategy.

He resigned in 2020 over recurring health problems, but remained a key political voice and was campaigning for his ruling party when a lone gunman killed him on July 8.

The shooting sent shock waves through a country with famously low gun crime and prompted international condemnation.

But the decision to give him a state funeral — only the second for a former premier in the post-war period — has provoked opposition, with around 60 percent of Japanese against the event in recent polls.

Discontent over state funeral

Abe’s accused killer targeted the former leader believing he had ties to the Unification Church, which he resented over massive donations his mother had made to the sect.

The assassination prompted fresh scrutiny of the church and its fundraising, and uncomfortable questions for Japan’s political establishment, with the ruling party admitting around half its lawmakers had links to the religious organization.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged the party will sever all ties with the church, but the scandal helped fuel discontent over the state funeral.

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the state funeral for Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe in front of the parliament building in Tokyo on September 27, 2022. (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP)

Thousands have protested the ceremony and a man set himself on fire last week near the prime minister’s office, leaving notes reportedly expressing his objection to the event.

Some lawmakers from opposition parties are also boycotting the funeral.

The controversy has various causes, with some accusing Kishida of unilaterally approving the funeral instead of consulting parliament, and others resentful of a nearly $12 million price tag.

It is also the legacy of Abe’s divisive tenure, marked by persistent allegations of cronyism, and opposition to his nationalism and plans to reform the pacifist constitution.

Kishida’s government may be hoping the solemnity of the event, attended by an estimated 4,300 people, including 700 foreign invitees, will drown out the controversy.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives for the state funeral of Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe in the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on September 27, 2022. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool/AFP)

US Vice President Kamala Harris and world leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian premier Anthony Albanese were among those in attendance.

Abe worked to cultivate close ties with Washington to bolster the key US-Japanese alliance, and also courted a stronger “Quad” grouping Japan, the United States, India and Australia.

The mourners will hear eulogies from Kishida and politicians including Yoshihide Suga, who succeeded Abe after his resignation.

Japan’s emperor and empress are not attending, as neutral national figures, but Crown Prince Akishino and his wife are expected to lead mourners in offering flowers at the end of the 90-minute service.

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