TOKYO, Japan — A tense Japan prepared Tuesday for a rare and controversial state funeral for assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving leader in his nation's modern history and one of the most divisive.
Tokyo was under maximum security, with angry protests opposing the funeral planned. Hours before the ceremony, hundreds of people carrying bouquets of flowers queued at public flower-laying stands at nearby Kudanzaka park. Their line stretched several blocks.
Masayuki Aoki, a 70-year-old business owner, recalls his “fist bump” with Abe when he came to Yokohama, near his home, for campaigning just days before he was killed. “I'm emotionally attached to him and I've been supporting the LDP, too," he said. “I had to come to offer him flowers."
Masae Kurokawa, 64, who also offered Abe flowers, praised him as “a great figure who brought Japan back to the international level.”
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and other foreign dignitaries are among the 4,300 people attending the funeral. But Japan's main political opposition parties are not; opponents say the event is a reminder of how prewar imperialist governments used state funerals to fan nationalism.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says his mentor Abe deserves a state funeral. The government also maintains that the ceremony is not meant to force anyone to honor Abe. Most prefectural governments, however, plan to fly national flags at half-staff and observe a moment of silence.
Japanese troops will line the streets around Budokan hall, where the funeral is being held, and 20 of them will act as honor guards outside of Abe’s home as his family leaves for the funeral. There will then be a 19-volley salute.
The ceremony will start 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 he was assassinated in July.
Government, parliamentary and judicial representatives, including Kishida, will make condolence speeches, followed by Akie Abe.
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.