Why plans for Abe's state funeral are dividing Japan

Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's successor is organizing a state funeral for him. Here's why that unusual honor is prompting widespread protest.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP
People protested plans for a state funeral for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe outside the Diet building in Tokyo on Aug. 31, 2022. The former leader was assassinated on July 8, 2022.

A rare state funeral for Abe Shinzo, the former prime minister who was assassinated in July, has split Japan.

The hawkish Mr. Abe was one of the nation’s most divisive postwar leaders, but it is the ruling party’s ties with the ultra-conservative Unification Church that has fired up much of the opposition to the funeral.

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is battling near-continuous political fallout from his handling of both the links to the church among his party’s lawmakers and the state funeral he says Mr. Abe deserves.

Here’s a look at some of the reasons why the state funeral on Tuesday is causing so much anger:

Who gets a state funeral in Japan?

The tradition has roots in a ceremony performed by the emperor to honor those who made exceptional contributions to the country.

The emperor before World War II was revered as a god, and public mourning for those honored with state funerals was compulsory. Most state funerals were for members of the imperial family, but political and military leaders were also honored, including Yamamoto Isoroku, who commanded Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack and was killed in 1943 when his plane was shot down.

The state funeral law was scrapped after the war. Japan’s only other state funeral for a political leader since then was held in 1967 for Yoshida Shigeru, who signed the San Francisco Treaty ending the U.S. occupation of Japan and restoring ties with the Allies.

Because of criticism that Yoshida’s funeral was held without any legal basis, subsequent governments scaled down such events.

“A state funeral contradicts the spirit of democracy,” said Miyama Junichi, a historian at Chuo University.

Why is Mr. Abe getting a state funeral?

Mr. Kishida says Mr.Abe deserves a state funeral because he was the longest-serving leader in Japan’s modern political history and for his diplomatic, security, and economic policies that elevated Japan’s international profile. Mr. Kishida, noting Mr. Abe’s assassination during an election campaign, says Japan must never to bow to “violence against democracy.”

Political watchers say holding a state funeral for Mr. Abe is Mr. Kishida’s attempt to please ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers belonging to Mr. Abe’s conservative political faction so as to buttress his own grip on power.

Why is it controversial? 

Nakano Koichi, international politics professor at Sophia University, says the funeral is an attempt to whitewash Mr. Abe’s legacy and to cover up scandals linked to the Unification Church. The church is accused of inappropriate recruitment and business tactics but denies the charges.

Opponents also say the move is undemocratic, citing a lack of a clear legal basis and the unilateral decision by the Kishida Cabinet to hold the funeral. They point to a controversial legacy of increased military spending and an autocratic leadership style. 

Protests have increased as more details emerged about Mr. Abe’s and LDP lawmakers’ connection to the Unification Church. The South Korea-based church has built close ties with LDP lawmakers over shared interests in conservative causes.

Mr. Abe’s assassin reportedly was enraged about ties between Mr. Abe, his party, and the church, which he said his mother had given all the family’s money to.

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

A group of lawyers filed a lawsuit trying to stop the funeral, but it was reportedly dismissed Monday. An elderly man recently set himself on fire near the prime minister’s office in an apparent protest of the funeral.

What’s the cost? 

About 1.7 billion yen ($11.8 million) is needed for the venue, security, transportation, and accommodation for the guests, the government said. Opponents say tax money should be spent on more meaningful causes, such as to address widening economic disparities.

What are the implications for Mr. Kishida? 

Mr. Kishida, who took office a year ago, had enjoyed stable public support. His July election victory seemingly securing him a way to rule for up to three years.

But his support ratings have since plunged over his handling of the state funeral and his governing party’s links to the South Korean church.

An LDP survey found nearly half of its lawmakers had links to the church. Mr. Kishida has pledged to cut all ties, but many Japanese want further explanation of how the church may have influenced party policies.

What will happen at the funeral? 

Guests will gather ahead of the funeral at the Budokan martial arts arena in downtown Tokyo for security checks. About 1,000 Japanese troops will line the streets around the venue. The ceremony will start with a 19-volley salute.

Government, parliamentary, and judicial representatives, including Mr. Kishida, will make condolence speeches, followed by Mr. Abe’s widow, Abe Akie. Outside the arena, a table for flowers will be set up for the public.

The government says the funeral is not meant to force anyone to honor Mr. Abe. But most of the nation’s 47 prefectural governments will fly the flag at half-mast and observe a moment of silence, which could put pressure on public schools. Residents and offices near the venue will be affected by traffic controls and security checkpoints, and classes will be canceled at some neighborhood schools.

Opponents will hold rallies around the country.

Who will attend?

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris as well as leaders from Australia, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore will attend. Mr. Kishida says the event will provide an opportunity for him to engage in “funeral diplomacy.”

The government said last week 4,300 attendants, including foreign dignitaries, Japanese lawmakers, municipal leaders, and representatives from business, cultural, and other areas, are attending – fewer than the 6,000 invited.

Many opposition members, including the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party, are boycotting the funeral. 

This story was reported by the Associated Press.

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