TOKYO, Japan — Japan's hawkish former leader Shinzo Abe was honored by a rare and divisive state funeral Tuesday that was full of militaristic presentation like soldiers carrying his ashes in a box brought by his widow and praise of his nine-year premiership.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said the publicly financed ceremony was a deserved honor for Japan's longest-serving modern political leader, but it has deeply split public opinion and was met with angry protests.
The event attended by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Japan's Crown Prince Akishino and other foreign and Japanese dignitaries began with Akie Abe, in a black formal kimono, walking slowly behind Kishida into the funeral venue, carrying the 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 chrysanthemum flowers and decorations.
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.
Associated Press video journalist Chisato Tanaka contributed to this report.