TOKYO – Japan's assassinated hawkish former leader, Shinzo Abe, was given a rare state funeral Tuesday full of military pomp and surrounded by throngs of mourners as well as by widespread protests, with thousands taking to the streets in opposition.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the publicly financed ceremony was a well-deserved honor for Japan's longest-serving modern political leader. The event was attended by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Japanese Crown Prince Akishino and other foreign and Japanese dignitaries.
Japan’s main political opposition parties boycotted the funeral, which critics say was a reminder of how prewar imperialist governments used state funerals to fan nationalism. The government maintains that the ceremony was not meant to force anyone to honor Abe. But the decision to give him the rare honor — which was made without parliamentary debate or approval — as well as the funeral’s high cost and other controversies have led to anger about the event.
The funeral began with Abe's widow, Akie Abe, in a black formal kimono, walking slowly behind Kishida into the funeral venue, carrying an 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 chrysanthemums and decorations.
Attendants stood while a military band played the Kimigayo national anthem, then observed a moment of silence before a video was shown praising Abe's life in politics. It included his 2006 parliamentary speech vowing to build a “beautiful Japan," 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.
Kishida, in a 12-minute eulogy, praised Abe as a politician with a clear vision for post-World War II economic growth who promoted national security, the development of Japan and the world and a “free and open Indo-Pacific” as a counter to China's rise.
“You were a person who should have lived much longer,” Kishida said as he looked up at a massive photo of Abe. “I had a firm belief that you would contribute as a compass showing the future direction of Japan and the rest of the world for 10 or 20 more years."
Kishida said Abe will be remembered not just as the nation's longest-serving leader but for what he achieved, and he pledged to carry on Abe's policies for Japan and the region.
During the ceremony, Harris sat in the third row next to Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, and they later joined others by placing a branch of chrysanthemums on a table near Abe's photo.
Abe was cremated in July following a private funeral at a Tokyo temple days after he was assassinated while giving a campaign speech on a street in Nara in western Japan.
Tokyo was under high security for the state funeral, especially near the venue, the Budokan martial arts hall.
At a protest in downtown Tokyo, thousands 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.
Kishida has also been criticized because of a widening controversy over decades of close ties between Abe and the governing Liberal Democratic Party with the Unification Church, accused of raking in huge donations by brainwashing adherents. The suspect in Abe’s assassination reportedly told police he killed Abe because of his links to the church, which he said took large amounts of money from his mother, bankrupting his family and ruining his life.
“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,” Hosei University political science professor Jiro Yamaguchi wrote in a recent article.
Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped the South Korean-based 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 the governing party’s ties to the church.
“One big problem is that there was no proper approval process,” retiree Shin Watanabe said during the demonstration Tuesday. “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.”
Outside the Budokan hall, thousands 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 shared a fist bump with Abe at a campaign stop in Yokohama days before his assassination. “I came to offer him flowers."
In what some see as an attempt to further justify the honor for Abe, Kishida has held meetings this week 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, though no Group of Seven leaders are attending. Following the funeral service Tuesday, Kishida greeted each of the leaders at a reception at the Akasaka state guest house.
U.S. Vice President Harris, who had a tour of Zojoji temple, where Abe's family funeral was held in July, credited Abe with coming up with a term for regional cooperation.
“There has been much that has been said in honor of his long leadership to Japan but also to the United States. It was he who coined the term ‘free and open Indo-Pacific,’ and as a member of the Indo-Pacific region, as America, we cherish those principles, and we stand by it,” she said.
Associated Press journalists Chisato Tanaka, Yuri Kageyama and Chris Megerian contributed to this report.