Japan holds state funeral for ex-leader Abe amid tensions

TOKYO –

Japan is filled with tension, rather than sadness, on Tuesday as a rare state funeral for slain former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, one of its most divisive leaders, deeply divides the nation.

Tokyo was under maximum security, with large numbers of uniformed police mobilizing around the Budokan hall, where the funeral is taking place, and the main train stations. Roads around the venue are closed throughout the day, and coin lockers at major stations have been sealed for security.

Hours before the ceremony began, dozens of people with bouquets lined up at public flower-laying stalls in nearby Kudanzaka Park.

Opponents of the state-sponsored honor were to hold rallies elsewhere in Tokyo and across the country. They say tax money should be spent on more meaningful causes, like addressing growing economic disparities caused by Abe’s policies.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has come under fire for forcing the expensive event on Abe, who was assassinated in July, amid a growing controversy over him and the ruling party’s decades-long comfortable relations with the ultra-conservative Unification Church, accused of raising huge donations from supporters of brainwashing.

Kishida says the longest-serving leader in modern Japanese political history deserves the honor.

The government says the funeral is not intended to force anyone to honor Abe. But most of the nation’s 47 prefectural governments will fly the flag at half-staff and observe a moment of silence.

Opponents say Kishida’s unilateral decision without parliamentary approval was undemocratic, a reminder of how the prewar imperialist government used state funerals to stoke nationalism. The pre-war funeral law was abolished after World War II. The only postwar state funeral for a political leader, Shigeru Yoshida’s in 1967, also faced criticism for lacking legal grounds.

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

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

In a purported defense of the funeral attacks, Kishida has launched marathon talks with visiting foreign leaders in what he calls “funeral diplomacy” to strengthen ties as Japan grapples with regional and global challenges, including threats from China, Russia and North Korea. He was due to meet with some 40 foreign leaders through Wednesday. No leaders of the Group of Seven will attend.

Kishida met with about 10 of them on Monday, including US Vice President Kamala 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.

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

Japanese troops will line the streets around the venue, with 20 of them standing guard of honor outside Abe’s home as his family leaves, followed by a 19-volley salute.

The ceremony will begin when Abe’s widow, Akie Abe, enters the hall with an urn containing Abe’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.

Government, parliamentary and judicial representatives, including Kishida, will deliver condolence speeches, followed by Akie Abe.

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

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

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

“The fact that the close ties between the LDP and the Unification Church may have interfered in policy-making processes is seen by the Japanese as a greater threat to democracy than Abe’s assassination,” the professor wrote. political science at Hosei University, Jiro Yamaguchi, in his recent article.

A group of lawyers filed a series of lawsuits in courts across the country to stop the funeral, although one of them was reportedly dismissed on Monday. An elderly man had set himself on fire near the prime minister’s office in an apparent protest at the funeral.

The suspect in Abe’s murder reportedly targeted him because of Abe and his party’s ties to the church, which he said ruined his life.

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 tantamount to endorsing the party’s ties to the Unification Church.

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