A state funeral for Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been held in Tokyo amid public anger over the cost of the ceremony and revelations over his party’s ties to a controversial religious group.
More than 4,000 guests, including the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, and the British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, stood in silence as a member of Japan’s self-defense forces entered the Nippon Budokan hall, where a 19-gun salute sounded in honor of the assassinated former leader.
Abe’s widow, Akie, dressed in a black kimono, carried her late husband’s ashes into the hall, followed by Japan’s crown prince, Akishino, and other members of the imperial family.
Abe was killed in early July by a man armed with a homemade gun who reportedly told the police that he had targeted the conservative politician over his support for the Unification church.
Amid tight security, people opposed to the funeral demonstrated as thousands of mourners queued to lay flowers and offer prayers in a park near the venue.
After a video showcasing Abe’s achievements, set to footage of the former prime minister playing the piano, the current leader, Fumio Kishida, paid tribute to his friend and predecessor.
“I feel heartbreaking grief,” Kishida said as he faced a large photograph of Abe situated above a floral structure used to display his ashes, medals and the Japanese Hinomaru flag
During almost nine years in office, Abe had promoted a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region and strengthened Japan’s security ties with its main ally, the US, Kishida said, adding that he would continue Abe’s attempt to resolve the cold war abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea.
“Courage is doing what is right,” Kishida said in English, before adding in Japanese: “Abe-san, you were a person of courage. People around the world will look back fondly on your time in power. Abe-san, Prime Minister Abe… you did a good job. Please rest in peace.
Abe’s death sent shock waves through a country with very low rates of gun crime and prompted tributes from politicians around the world.
But Kishida’s decision to give him a state funeral – only the second for a former prime minister since the war – sparked opposition following revelations of widespread links between Abe’s Liberal Democratic party (LDP) and the Unification church, more commonly known as the Moonies.
The suspect in Abe’s shooting, Tetsuya Yamagami, told investigators he had targeted the politician because of his ties to the church. Abe was not a member, but sent a congratulatory video message to a church-related event last autumn.
A recent survey by the LDP – now led by Kishida – found that about half of its lawmakers had connections to the church, prompting questions about how much influence the conservative group has had on the party’s stance on issues such as constitutional reform and same-sex marriage.
Yamagami reportedly said he had come to despise the church after his mother, a member, donated a huge sum of money to the organization and left his family in financial ruin.
Founded in South Korea in 1954 by the self-proclaimed messiah Sun Myung Moon, the church established a presence in Japan with the help of Abe’s grandfather, the postwar prime minister Nobusuke Kishi. The organization, known for its mass weddings, has been accused of pressuring believers into making donations they cannot afford – claims it has denied.
Abe’s successor after he resigned in 2020, Yoshihide Suga, said he felt a mixture of “sadness and anger” over Abe’s death. “You always said that Japan’s tomorrow would be better than it is today, and you gave hope to young people.”
Suga, who served as Abe’s longtime chief spokesperson, added: “It was a pleasure working with you… Even during difficult times you were always a lively presence. You were a true leader of Japan.
Critics said the state funeral lacked any legal basis and feared it would give the incorrect impression that Japan was united in its support for Abe’s policies. Recent opinion polls showed a majority of people opposed the ceremony, with many citing its ¥1.6bn ($11m) price tag.
A private funeral for Abe was held in Tokyo four days after he was shot dead while making an election campaign speech in the western city of Nara on July 8.
“I know it’s divisive and there are a lot of people against this, but there were so many people lined up to offer flowers,” said Yoshiko Kojima, a 63-year-old Tokyo resident who was among the mourners on Tuesday.
“I felt that now the funeral is actually taking place, many people have come out to pray for him.”