Thousands of Japanese and foreign dignitaries gather in Tokyo on Tuesday to honor slain former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a rare state funeral that has sparked controversy and protests.
Abe was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and one of the country’s most prominent political figures, known for fostering international alliances and his “Abenomics” economic strategy.
He resigned in 2020 due to recurring health problems, but remained a major political voice and campaigned for his ruling party when a lone gunman killed him on July 8.
The shooting sent shockwaves through a country with a notoriously low gun crime rate and drew international condemnation.
But the decision to give him a state funeral – only the second for a former prime minister in the post-war period – has drawn growing opposition, with around 60 percent of Japanese opposed to the event in recent polls.
Abe’s accused killer targeted the former leader because he believed he had ties to the Unification Church, which he resented over his mother’s massive donations to the sect.
The assassination prompted renewed scrutiny of the church and its fundraising, and uncomfortable questions for Japan’s political establishment, with the ruling party admitting that about half of its lawmakers had ties to the religious organization.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has promised the party will sever all ties with the church, but the scandal has helped fuel discontent over the state funeral.
Thousands have protested the ceremony and one man set himself on fire near the prime minister’s office, leaving notes reportedly expressing his opposition to the event. Some lawmakers from opposition parties are also boycotting the funeral altogether.
The controversy has multiple origins, with some accusing Kishida of unilaterally authorizing the funeral instead of consulting Parliament, and others angering a price tag of nearly $12 million.
It’s also the legacy of Abe’s divisive tenure, marked by persistent accusations of nepotism and opposition to his nationalism and plans to reform the pacifist constitution.
– Massive Security Operation –
The Kishida government may be hoping the celebration of the event, which is estimated to be attended by 4,300 people, including 700 foreign guests, will drown out the controversy.
When Abe’s family held a first private funeral for him, thousands of Japanese came to pay their respects and many are expected to line up Tuesday morning to donate flowers near the funeral home at Tokyo’s famous Budokan venue.
Abe’s ashes are expected to arrive at the scene under a 19-gun salute, and government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno will open the hearing around 14:00 (0500 GMT) before the national anthem and a minute’s silence.
Eulogies follow from Kishida and politicians, including Yoshihide Suga, who has succeeded Abe after his resignation.
Japan’s Emperor and Empress will not attend as neutral national figures, but Crown Prince Akishino and his wife are expected to lead the mourners by offering flowers at the end of the 90-minute service.
US Vice President Kamala Harris and world leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will be in the crowd.
Abe worked to foster close ties with Washington to strengthen the important US-Japan alliance and also campaigned for a stronger “quad” faction from Japan, the United States, India and Australia.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose to skip the event following the impact of Hurricane Fiona, meaning no incumbent G7 leader will be in attendance.
Still, the event will involve a massive security operation, accounting for a significant portion of the estimated 1.7 billion yen cost of the funeral.
The security breaches that allowed a gunman to approach and kill Abe have led to a police overhaul, and local media reported that 20,000 police officers would be deployed for the funeral.