A rare and controversial state funeral for slain former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began on Tuesday in tense Japan where the event for one of the country’s most controversial leaders has deeply divided public opinion.
Abe’s widow, Akie Abe, dressed in a black formal kimono, slowly entered the Budokan hall carrying an urn containing her husband’s ashes, placed in a wooden box and wrapped in a purple cloth with gold stripes. Defense soldiers in white uniforms took Abe’s ashes and placed them on a pedestal filled with white and yellow chrysanthemum flowers and decorations.
Representatives of government, parliament and the judiciary, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, will deliver condolence speeches, followed by Akie Abe.
US Vice President Kamala Harris, among dozens of foreign dignitaries and 4,300 attendees, sat in the third row, next to Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan.
Abe was cremated in July after a private funeral at a Tokyo temple days after he was murdered while delivering a campaign speech on a street in Nara, a city in western Japan.
Kishida says Japan’s longest-serving post-war political leader deserves a state funeral. But the undemocratic decision to give him the rare honor with imperial ties, the cost and controversies over his and the ruling party’s ties to the ultra-conservative Unification Church fueled controversy over the event.
Tokyo was under maximum security, with angry protests over the planned funeral. Hours before the ceremony, hundreds of people carrying bouquets of flowers lined up outside public flower-laying stalls in nearby Kudanzaka Park. Their line stretched for several blocks.
Masayuki Aoki, a 70-year-old business owner, remembers his “punch” with Abe when he came to Yokohama, near his home, to campaign days before his death. “I am emotionally attached to him and I also supported the LDP,” he said. “I had to come and give her flowers.”
Masae Kurokawa, 64, who also presented Abe with flowers, hailed him as “a great figure who brought Japan back to the international level”.
The government maintains that the ceremony is not intended to force anyone to honor Abe. Japan’s main political opposition parties are not attending the event, which critics say is a reminder of how pre-war imperialist governments used state funerals to stoke nationalism.
In what some see as an attempt to further vindicate Abe’s honor, Kishida this week held meetings with visiting foreign leaders in what he calls “funeral diplomacy”. The talks aim to strengthen ties as Japan faces regional and global challenges, including threats from China, Russia and North Korea.
He was due to meet about 40 foreign leaders through Wednesday, but no Group of Seven leaders are present.
Kishida has been criticized for forcing the expensive event and for the growing controversy over Abe’s decades of close ties to the ruling party with the ultra-conservative Unification Church, which is accused of raking in huge donations by brainwashers. Abe’s alleged killer reportedly told police he killed the politician because of his church ties; he said his mother had ruined his life by giving the family money to the church.
“The fact that the close ties between the LDP and the Unification Church may have interfered with policy-making processes is seen by the Japanese people as a greater threat to democracy than the assassination of Abe. “wrote Jiro Yamaguchi, professor of political science at Hosei University, 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 amounts to an endorsement of the ruling party’s ties to the Unification Church.
Associated Press video reporter Chisato Tanaka contributed to this report.
This story was originally published September 26, 2022 9:10 p.m.