Japan holds a controversial state funeral for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

By Anthony Kuhn (NPR)
Sept. 27, 2022 1:36 p.m.
A portrait of Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe hangs above the stage during his state funeral in the Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo on Tuesday.

A portrait of Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe hangs above the stage during his state funeral in the Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Takashi Aoyama / Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Updated September 27, 2022 at 8:57 AM ET


Japan held a rare state funeral for its longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, on Tuesday, despite widespread public opposition to the event.

Roads were closed around the Nippon Budokan Hall, where the event was held. Some 20,000 police were mobilized to prevent the sort of security lapses which allowed Abe's suspected killer to walk behind him at a July 8 campaign event and shoot him twice with a homemade shotgun.

Thousands lined up to lay flowers at tables in front of pictures of Abe outside the hall. In a sign of the divisions surrounding the commemoration, thousands of others took to the streets in protest. Just down the street from the Budokan, protesters opposed to the state funeral tussled with Abe supporters and police.

Critics objected to the use of $11.5 million worth of taxpayer funds used to pay for the event, as well as Abe's track record of cronyism and corruption scandals, his ties to the Unification Church, and the lack of legal basis for the state funeral.

Some 4,300 guests attended the event, including Vice President Harris, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Abe's widow, Akie, brought her late husband's ashes into the hall, where they were placed on an altar, and politicians spoke Abe's praises. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida applauded Abe's vision of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" and a strengthened alliance with the U.S.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hands the urn of the ashes of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to his widow, Akie Abe, during his state funeral.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hands the urn of the ashes of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to his widow, Akie Abe, during his state funeral.

Takashi Aoyama / Pool/AFP via Getty Images

As Japan's prime minister from 2006-2007 and 2012-2020, Abe's signature policies included reviving Japan's economy and loosening constitutional restrictions on its military. After stepping down, he continued to wield influence as the head of the ruling party's largest faction.

Abe's suspected assassin, Tetsuya Yamagami, says he targeted Abe because of Abe's ties to the Unification Church. His mother was a church member, and he claimes her donations to the group led to his family's bankruptcy.

Veteran journalist Hiroshi Izumi says that Abe and the ruling party's ties to the Unification Church go back decades and were no secret, and Izumi did not think it would sink Abe or his party.

"His death is a huge loss and a very sad thing. But it has opened a Pandora's box," Izumi says.

Japanese media have reported that most ruling party lawmakers had ties to the church. The church supplied votes and campaign volunteers, and the politicians gave the church messages of support. Abe himself reportedly decided which party candidates would receive the support.

Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah, founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954. It is viewed by some in Japan as a cult and it has faced numerous lawsuits from former adherents, who claimed it defrauded and tried to control them.

Protesters demonstrate against the state funeral for Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe near the funeral's location on Tuesday.

Protesters demonstrate against the state funeral for Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe near the funeral's location on Tuesday.

Yuichi Yamazaki / AFP via Getty Images

One poll shows Japanese who oppose the state funeral outnumber those who support it by a 60% to 30% margin. About a dozen city or town assemblies have passed resolutions calling on the government to call it off. Last week, a man in Tokyo set himself on fire in protest against the state funeral.

Critics argue that there is no legal basis for holding a state funeral for Abe, who was not head of state. Japan's emperor is the head of state, while the prime minister is head of the government.

Kishida argued that the funeral was an appropriate tribute to the nation's longest-serving prime minister and a way to stand firm against the attack on democracy that his killing represented. It was also a way, he argued, to receive the foreign dignitaries who wished to express their condolences.

But critics have not been convinced, and Kishida's approval ratings have plummeted to below 30%, according to one survey.


A further slump in support "could seriously jeopardize Kishida's staying in office," says Jeffrey Hall, an expert on Japanese politics at the Kanda University of International Studies, outside Tokyo. If his ratings decline further, "conceivably there would be pressure on Kishida to resign and have somebody else take over so that they can reset or reboot" the ruling party's agenda.

Then again, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party does not face a major challenge from Japan's weak and divided opposition parties. And Kishida does not have to face voters again until the next elections, in 2025.

The ceremony

Attendants stood while a military band played the Kimigayo national anthem, then observed a moment of silence before a video praising Abe's tenure. Footage included his 2006 parliamentary speech vowing to build a "beautiful Japan" and his "Toward the Alliance of Hope" speech at the U.S. Congress in 2015. It also included 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 his 12-minute eulogy, praised Abe as an aspiring politician with a clear vision for postwar economic growth and development of Japan and the world, and promoting the concept of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" as a counter to China's rise.

Kishida, as he looked up a large photo of smiling Abe, said as a fellow lawmaker elected in the same year in 1993, Abe's loss came too soon. "You were a person who should have lived much longer," Kishida said. "I had a firm belief that you were to contribute as a compass to show the future direction of Japan and the rest of the world for 10 or 20 more years."

Harris sat in the third row next to Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, during the ceremony, and they later joined others by placing a branch of chrysanthemum flowers on a table set before the pedestal.

Abe was cremated in July after a private funeral at a Tokyo temple days after he was assassinated while giving a campaign speech on a street in Nara, a city in western Japan.

Tokyo was under maximum security for the state funeral, especially near the Budokan hall venue.

At a peaceful protest march downtown, hundreds 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.

The government maintains that the ceremony is not meant to force anyone to honor Abe. But the undemocratic decision to give him the rare honor with imperial ties, the cost, and controversies about his and the ruling party's ties to the ultra-conservative Unification Church have fueled controversy about the event.

"One big problem is that there was no proper approval process," retiree Shin Watanabe said during the demonstration. "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."

Hours before the ceremony, hundreds 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 had shared a fist bump with Abe at a campaign stop in Yokohama days before his assassination. "I had to come to offer him flowers."

Japan's main political opposition parties boycotted the funeral, which critics say is a reminder of how prewar imperialist governments used state funerals to fan nationalism.

In what some see as an attempt to further justify the honor for Abe, Kishida this week has held meetings 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, but no Group of Seven leaders are attending.

Kishida has been criticized for forcing through the costly event and over the widening controversy about Abe's and the governing party's decades of close ties with the ultra-conservative Unification Church, accused of raking in huge donations by brainwashing adherents. Abe's alleged assassin reportedly told police he killed the politician because of his links to the church; he said his mother ruined his life by giving away the family's money to the church.

"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," wrote Hosei University political science professor Jiro Yamaguchi 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 is equivalent to an endorsement of ruling party ties to the Unification Church.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.