Tense Japan holds funeral for slain ex-leader Abe

TOKYO– A tense Japan prepared on Tuesday for a rare and controversial state funeral for slain former prime minister Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving leader in his country’s modern history and one of the most controversial.

Tokyo was under maximum security, with angry protests over planned funerals around the capital and the country. Hours before the ceremony began, dozens of people carrying bouquets of flowers lined up outside public flower-laying stalls in nearby Kudanzaka Park.

Thousands of uniformed police rallied around the Budokan Hall, where the funeral is taking place, and at major train stations. Roads around the site are closed all day and coin lockers at major train stations have been sealed for security reasons. World leaders including US Vice President Kamala Harris were in town for the funeral.

Opponents of state-sponsored funerals, which have their roots in pre-war imperial ceremonies, say taxpayers’ money should be spent on more meaningful causes, such as addressing the growing economic disparities caused by Abe’s policies.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been criticized for forcing the expensive event to honor his mentor, Abe, who was assassinated in July. There has also been growing controversy over Abe and the ruling party’s close ties to the ultra-conservative Unification Church, which is accused of garnering huge donations by brainwashers. Abe’s alleged killer reportedly told police he killed the politician because of his church ties; he said his mother had ruined his life by giving the family money to the church.

Kishida says the longest-serving leader in modern Japanese political history deserves a state funeral. The government also maintains that the ceremony is not intended to force anyone to honor Abe. However, most of the country’s 47 prefectural governments plan to fly national flags at half mast and observe a minute’s silence.

Opponents say Kishida’s unilateral decision, which was taken without parliamentary approval, was undemocratic and a reminder of how pre-war imperialist governments used state funerals to stoke nationalism. The pre-war burial law was abolished after World War II. The only post-war state funeral for a political leader, for Shigeru Yoshida in 1967, also faced similar criticism.

“Spending our precious tax money on a state funeral without a legal basis is an act that tramples on the constitution,” organizer Takakage Fujita said at a protest on Monday.

About 1.7 billion yen ($11.8 million) is needed for venue, security, transportation and accommodation for guests, the government said.

A group of lawyers have filed a number of lawsuits in courts across the country in an attempt to stop the funeral. Last week, an elderly man set himself on fire near the prime minister’s office in protest at the funeral.

In what some see as an attempt to further vindicate Abe’s honor, Kishida has initiated a series of meetings with visiting foreign leaders in what he calls “funeral diplomacy”. The talks aim to strengthen ties as Japan faces regional and global challenges, including threats from China, Russia and North Korea. He was to meet around 40 foreign leaders until Wednesday. No leader of the Group of Seven is present.

Kishida met with a dozen dignitaries on Monday, including Harris, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Philippine Vice President Sara Duterte. He will meet his Australian and Indian counterparts separately and host a reception on Tuesday.

About 4,300 people, including Japanese lawmakers and foreign and local dignitaries, attend the funeral.

Japanese troops will line the streets around the venue, and 20 of them will act as honor guards outside Abe’s home as his family leaves for the funeral. There will then be a 19 volley salute.

The ceremony will begin when Abe’s widow, Akie Abe, enters the hall carrying an urn containing her husband’s ashes, placed in a wooden box and wrapped in white cloth. The former leader was cremated after a private funeral at a Tokyo temple days after his death.

Representatives of government, parliament and the judiciary, including Kishida, will deliver condolence speeches, followed by Akie Abe.

The main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and the Japanese Communist Party are boycotting the funeral, along with others.

Abe’s opponents remember his attempts to whitewash Japan’s wartime atrocities, his push for more military spending, his reactionary view of gender roles, and a leadership seen as autocratic and sympathetic.

Protests against the funeral grew as more details emerged about Abe’s connection to LDP lawmakers with the Unification Church. The South Korea-based church has forged close ties with LDP lawmakers over common interests in conservative causes.

“The fact that the close ties between the LDP and the Unification Church may have interfered with policy-making processes is seen by the Japanese people as a greater threat to democracy than the assassination of Abe. “wrote Jiro Yamaguchi, professor of political science at Hosei University, 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 amounts to an endorsement of the ruling party’s ties to the Unification Church.

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