Slain former Japanese leader Shinzo Abe is honored at a divisive state funeral

Widow of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe carrying urn with his ashes
Akie Abe carries an urn with the ashes of her slain husband, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at his state funeral in Tokyo on Tuesday.
(Franck Robichon / Pool Photo)

Japan’s assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was honored with a rare state funeral Tuesday that was full of military pomp and attracted both mourners and protesters, 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, but it has deeply split public opinion.

The event was attended by Vice President Kamala Harris, Japanese Crown Prince Akishino and other foreign and Japanese dignitaries. It began with Abe’s widow, Akie, in a black formal kimono, walking slowly behind Kishida into the funeral venue, carrying a funerary 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 other decorations.


Attendees stood while a military band played the “Kimigayo” national anthem. They then observed a moment of silence before a video praising Abe’s life in politics was shown.

Servicemen holding urn with former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ashes
Japanese servicemen carry the urn holding former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ashes at his state funeral Tuesday in Tokyo.
(Leah Millis / Pool Photo)

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 his 12-minute eulogy, praised Abe as an inspiring 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.

Some critics see the ceremony as an attempt to whitewash the legacy of Abe, who was the longest-serving leader in Japan’s modern political history.

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“You were a person who should have lived much longer,” Kishida said as he looked up at a massive photo of Abe, who was assassinated in July while giving a campaign speech on a street in Nara, a city in western Japan. “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 would 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. They later joined others in placing a branch of chrysanthemums on a table set near Abe’s photo.

Abe’s body was cremated after a private funeral at a Tokyo temple days after his fatal shooting.

Japan’s prime minister says that ‘problems with the security measures’ allowed a gunman to assassinate former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a campaign event.

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

At a peaceful protest 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.

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.

Japan's crown prince and his wife laying flowers at the state funeral of former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe
Japanese Crown Prince Akishino and his wife, Crown Princess Kiko, lay flowers at the altar during the state funeral of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
(Eugene Hoshiko / Pool Photo)

The government maintains that the ceremony is 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 — the high cost and other controversies have led to anger over the event.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been criticized for its close ties over decades with the Unification Church, which is accused of raking in huge donations by brainwashing adherents. Abe’s alleged assassin reportedly told police that he killed the former leader because of his links to the church; the man 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,” Jiro Yamaguchi, a political science professor at Hosei University, wrote 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 the LDP’s ties to the Unification 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,” said Masayuki Aoki, a 70-year-old business owner, 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.”

The Japanese ruling party’s decision to sever links with the Unification Church follows a widening scandal triggered by Shinzo Abe’s assassination.

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In what some see as an attempt to further justify the honor for Abe, Kishida is holding 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, but no heads of government from the Group of 7 leading industrialized democracies are attending.