A divided Japan sends off Shinzo Abe, its polarizing former leader

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida leaves the stage after delivering a speech at former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state funeral in the Nippon Budokan hall in Tokyo.

TOKYO – In death as in life, Shinzo Abe polarized public opinion in Japan.

As mourners lined up Tuesday to pay respects to Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, thousands of protesters hoisted signs and megaphones to condemn the event. While Abe’s two successors delivered emotional eulogies commemorating his life, career and friendship, two of his predecessors stayed away.

More than two months since Abe’s assassination, the split screen of events unfolding in Tokyo on the day of his state funeral – the first in Japan in 55 years and only the second in the postwar era – underscored the former conservative leader’s complicated legacy. Popular abroad as a staunch U.S. ally who boosted Japan’s global standing and oversaw a period of relative stability, he was often divisive at home, where critics assailed his right-wing nationalism and political scandals.

The funeral for the stalwart of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party drew more than 4,000 guests, including about 700 overseas dignitaries – a measure of the impact Abe had on Japanese foreign policy over two terms that spanned almost a decade until he stepped down as leader in 2020.

“Your multilayered diplomacy fostered favorable relations with every region in the world without exception,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who served as Abe’s foreign minister, said in a eulogy.

Among the attendees was Vice President Harris, who arrived in Tokyo on Monday and will head to Seoul later this week before returning to Washington. Harris, seated next to U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, was among the U.S. delegates in a lengthy procession to lay flowers for Abe as a band played “Amazing Grace.”

Yoshihide Suga, longtime aide and right-hand man to Abe and his successor as prime minister, spoke in an emotional eulogy of his predecessor’s humanity and passion for his country. Suga and Kishida, who entered politics three decades ago alongside Abe, addressed their friend and colleague as “prime minister” as a sign of respect.

As the somber service took place inside the Nippon Budokan hall, a different spectacle was unfolding nearby.

Thousands marched to Japan’s national assembly to protest the use of $11.5 million in public funds to pay for the funeral – a touchy subject because of rising inflation and a view among many here that the government has not sufficiently explained why taxpayers should foot the bill. Compounding protesters’ frustration is a growing scandal involving the ruling party’s links with a religious group known as the Unification Church, whose activities have drawn scrutiny since Abe was fatally shot on July 8.

The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, told police he wanted to carry out the assassination because his life and family had been ruined as a result of his mother’s large donations to her church, to which Abe had apparent close ties. The Unification Church has confirmed that Yamagami’s mother was a member.

An ensuing public outcry over the church’s relationship with senior figures in Japan’s ruling party has sent Kishida’s approval ratings plummeting.

On Tuesday, Japanese authorities stepped up security measures for the commemorations, particularly in light of the acknowledged lapses that enabled the gunman to approach Abe and open fire with a homemade weapon during a campaign event.

Dignitaries visiting Japan for Abe’s commemoration have held high-level meetings over the past two days.

Before the funeral, Harris held bilateral meetings with South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to discuss regional economic and security issues, including China’s actions in the Taiwan Strait and cooperation against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Harris plans to visit the demilitarized zone in South Korea later this week, Han announced at the beginning of his meeting with the U.S. vice president on Tuesday. In a statement, the White House said Harris would tour sites at the DMZ, which separates the two Koreas, meet with service members and receive an operational briefing from U.S. commanders.

“The Vice President will reflect on the shared sacrifice of tens of thousands of American and Korean soldiers who fought and died together, and will reaffirm that the U.S. commitment to the ROK’s defense is ironclad,” the White House said, using an abbreviation for the Republic of Korea, the formal name for South Korea.

On Monday, after arriving in Tokyo, Harris met with Kishida, offering her condolences for Abe’s death and emphasizing the U.S.-Japan alliance and U.S. support for Abe’s vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

With the U.S. midterm elections weeks away, both President Biden and Harris had intended to limit their travel to places in the United States, touting wins under their administration and campaigning and fundraising for Democrats. But the White House shifted its plans after the deaths of Abe in July and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8.

“As you have said, the alliance between Japan and the United States is a cornerstone of what we believe is integral to peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region,” Harris told Kishida on Monday. “And it is something we’ve prioritized because we also believe it is in the best interest of the American people in terms of their security and prosperity – and we do believe the same for the Japanese people.”