Japan bid farewell to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in an elaborate state funeral on Tuesday, despite public opposition to the cost of the event as the country grapples with its leader’s legacy.
Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, was shot dead In a July campaign speech in Nara, he shocked a nation where gun violence is extremely rare.
More than 4,300 guests are expected to attend the Nippon Budokan Arena in Tokyo, including foreign dignitaries such as US Vice President Kamala Harris and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
According to the official program, Abe’s ashes will be taken to the premises, where officers of the Self-Defense Force (SDF) will perform ceremonial rites such as a guard of honor, gun salutes and musical performances.
Japanese leaders will then deliver memorial speeches and those in attendance will offer flowers before the government welcomes visiting foreign dignitaries.
Police have stepped up security, public broadcaster NHK reported, with around 20,000 police deployed to keep the peace as hundreds of people took to the streets to protest the first state funeral of a Japanese leader in more than half a century.
On Tuesday morning, crowds lined up outside designated memorial sites to lay flowers and pay their last respects to Abe, who dominated Japanese politics for a generation.
But as they mourned, more than 1,000 others took to the streets in anti-funeral protests, showing the deep division of the public on the occasion.
The crowd shouted slogans as they marched near the funeral venue, waving some banners calling for the proceedings to be halted. Protest leaders rallied the crowd through loudspeakers, and a van drove past blasting music from a boom box..
Since Abe’s murder, the country has seen rising inflation and half of Japan’s ruling party members have been revealed to have ties to the controversial Unification Church, which has faced backlash over its fundraising practices, prompting the church to pledge reforms to ensure donations are “not excessive”. ”
Some critics have pointed to Abe’s unpopular policies as a cause of discontent, and questioned why taxpayers’ money is going to the state funeral – which will cost around $12 million (1.66 billion yen) – at a time of severe economic strain.
“It was a tragedy that Abe was shot dead and lost his life, but we shouldn’t make heroes out of this tragedy,” one protester, Shinsaku Nohira, told CNN at an anti-state funeral rally outside Japan’s parliament.
“At least half of the Japanese population is against this state funeral, so I don’t want the government’s messages to get out, to let people know that there are citizens in Japan who are against this event.”
An NHK poll earlier in September showed that 57% of respondents oppose state funerals, compared to 32% who support them, while the rest said they did not know or did not want to answer.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has tried to calm the public, saying a state funeral for Abe was “appropriate” given his achievements as a former leader. The event is not to “force people to mourn” or make it a “political issue,” he said in August.
Abe served two terms in office, during which he transformed Japan’s security posture, raised questions about the country’s status as a pacifist nation, and in 2015 passed major security legislation to help the US do what Japan could do militarily.
He was also a prominent figure on the world stage, cultivating strong ties with Washington and seeking better relations with Beijing, while trying to counter Chinese expansion in the region by uniting Pacific allies.
One of his most recent successes in office was securing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, although the Covid-19 pandemic forced the competition to be postponed to 2021.
After stepping down in 2020, citing health reasons, Abe remained active in politics, often campaigning for his party, which is what he was doing at the time of his assassination.
NHK reported in July that the alleged shooter, Tetsuya Yamagami, targeted the former prime minister because he believed Abe’s grandfather — another former Japanese leader — had helped the spread of a religious group he resented.
CNN has not been able to independently confirm which group Yamagami was referring to, or any links between Abe and any of the alleged hate groups.
– Source: CNNI
The controversial church under the microscope after the murder
But the killing saw a backlash against the Unification Church, which Yamagami’s mother said was a member who attended church events, though Yamagami herself was never a member.
It also said the church received a message of support from Abe at an event it organized, but the former prime minister was not a registered member of the church, nor did he sit on its advisory board.
Abe’s death caused shockwaves in Japan and the international community, and thousands gathered for his private funeral in Tokyo in July.