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Tense Japan holds funeral for assassinated ex-leader Shinzo Abe

The funeral of assassinated former prime minister Shinzo Abe is taking place (Nicolas Datiche/AP)
The funeral of assassinated former prime minister Shinzo Abe is taking place (Nicolas Datiche/AP)

A tense Japan is holding a rare and controversial state funeral for assassinated former prime minister Shinzo Abe, its longest-serving modern leader and one of the most divisive.

Tokyo was under maximum security, with angry protests opposing the funeral planned around the capital and nation. Hours before the ceremony began, dozens of people carrying bouquets of flowers queued at public flower-laying stands at nearby Kudanzaka Park.

Thousands of uniformed police mobilised around the Budokan hall, where the funeral is being held, and at major train stations. Roads around the venue are closed throughout the day, and coin lockers at main stations were sealed for security. World leaders, including US Vice President Kamala Harris, were in town for the funeral.

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

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been criticised for forcing through the costly event to honour his mentor, who was assassinated in July.

Japan Abe Funeral
Akie Abe, widow of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, carries an urn containing his ashes at his state funeral (Franck Robichon/Pool/AP)

There has also been a widening controversy about Mr Abe’s and the governing party’s decades-long close ties with the ultra-conservative Unification Church, accused of raking in huge donations by brainwashing adherents.

Mr 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.

Mr Kishida says the longest-serving leader in Japan’s modern political history deserves a state funeral. The government also maintains that the ceremony is not meant to force anyone to honour Mr Abe. Most of the nation’s 47 prefectural governments, however, plan to fly national flags at half-staff and observe a moment of silence.

Japan Abe Funeral
Attendants arrive at the state funeral (Eugene Hoshiko, Pool/AP)

Opponents say Mr Kishida’s one-sided decision, which was made without parliamentary approval, was undemocratic, and a reminder of how pre-war imperialist governments used state funerals to fan nationalism.

The pre-war funeral law was abolished after the Second World War. The only post-war state funeral for a political leader, for Shigeru Yoshida in 1967, also faced similar criticism.

“Spending our valuable tax money on a state funeral with no 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 million) is needed for the venue, security, transportation and accommodation for the guests, the government said.

A group of lawyers has filed a number of lawsuits in courts around the country to try to stop the funeral. An elderly man last week set himself on fire near the prime minister’s office in an apparent protest of the funeral.

In what some see as an attempt to further justify the honour for Mr Abe, Mr Kishida has launched a series of 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. No Group of Seven leaders are attending.

Mr Kishida met about 10 dignitaries Monday, including Ms Harris, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Philippine Vice President Sara Duterte. He will meet with his Australian and Indian counterparts separately and host a reception on Tuesday.

Japan Abe Funeral
Police officers surround protesters (Minoru Iwasaki/Kyodo News/AP)

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

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

The ceremony starts when Mr 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.

Government, parliamentary and judicial representatives, including Mr Kishida, will make condolence speeches, followed by Mrs Abe.

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

Mr Abe’s opponents recall 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 supportive of cronyism.