State funeral for Abe held in Tokyo amid controversy; Kishida’s ‘condolence diplomacy’ doesn’t work well as his political headwinds will ensue
Published: Sep 27, 2022 10:29 PM
Anti-war protesters rally against the Japanese government's decision to fund a state funeral for late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on September 19, 2022. Japan expects to spend around $12 million on a state funeral on September 27 for Abe, the government said. Photo: AFP

Anti-war protesters rally against the Japanese government's decision to fund a state funeral for late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on September 19, 2022. Japan expects to spend around $12 million on a state funeral on September 27 for Abe, the government said. Photo: AFP

The state funeral for the assassinated former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was held in Tokyo on Tuesday against a backdrop of strong internal controversy from the public and opposition parties over the cost and legitimacy of such a ceremony, while the guest list, ostensibly long, but which included very few incumbent top leaders, could embarrass current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida who while planning to stage "condolence diplomacy," may not realize his goal, observers said.  

The funeral started at 2 pm at a Nippon Budokan arena with some 4,300 people in attendance. After the national anthem and a moment of silence, images of Abe from throughout his life were displayed on a large screen inside the hall. Kishida, House of Representatives Speaker Hiroyuki Hosoda, House of Councillors President Hidehisa Otsuji and Supreme Court Chief Justice Saburo Tokura gave memorial addresses, and former prime minister Yoshihide Suga made an address on behalf of Abe's friends, according to Japan News.

There were long lines of people laying flowers and paying respects to Abe at stands set up near the funeral venue hours before the event, under tight security measures. Yet demonstrators against the ceremony also held placards on Tuesday outside the venue. 

The longest-serving Japanese prime minister held the top post for eight years and eight months in total over two terms. His successor Kishida repeatedly cited that as a reason for the state funeral, which is increasingly controversial in Japan. 

Polls by Kyodo News and public broadcaster NHK showed about 60 percent of Japanese surveyed opposed the state funeral.  On September 21, a man set himself on fire in Tokyo to protest against the ceremony and on Monday, around 10,000 protestors marched through the Tokyo streets demanding the funeral be called off, according to media reports.  

Da Zhigang, director of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that the strong internal opposition was driven mostly by legitimacy of the decision to hold a state funeral, the high budget, and particularly the scandal of the late leader and the ruling party's connection to the infamous Unification Church. 

The decision to give Abe a state funeral was announced by incumbent PM Kishida a week after Abe's death on July 8, and approved at a cabinet meeting without parliamentary discussions or broad support from opposition parties, according to Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun. 

The Kishida administration estimated allocating over 1.66 billion yen ($11.8 million) of taxpayer money for Abe's state funeral, including 800 million yen to provide security and 600 million yen to take care of foreign dignitaries, the Asahi Shimbun reported.

The spending would be more expensive than the grand funeral for Britain's Queen Elizabeth II which the Daily Mirror estimated to cost 8 million pounds ($ 8.6 million). 

Some Japanese challenged that, claiming the total cost could balloon in the end, citing the final expenditure of the Tokyo Olympics which came in at double the original budget. 

Liu Jiangyong, vice dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times that having a state funeral was too hasty a decision. The assassination of the former prime minister also put the links between the Unification Church and Abe as well as Japan's governing party under a new spotlight, seriously marring their reputation. 

Many Japanese also worried a state funeral could undermine an objective evaluation of the Abe administration's political record and hinder free discussions on his legacy.

Abe's political and diplomatic legacy - his fervid advocacy of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" and efforts to break Japan's pacifist constitution - was opposed by many. His signature Abenomics, featuring radical monetary easing and fiscal spending, faces mounting scrutiny and challenges amid recent slump of yen, analysts noted.

Facing embarrassment  

Around 4,300 people attended the Tuesday funeral including US vice president Kamala Harris, falling short of the "up to 6,000 people" estimate, Kyodo News Agency reported.

None of the G7 countries, Japan's close partners, sent their incumbent top leaders to the funeral. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau originally planned to attend but canceled the trip after Hurricane Fiona devastated Canada's eastern seaboard.  

Germany was represented at the funeral by former president Christian Wulff, and France by former president Nicolas Sarkozy. The United Kingdom and Italy sent former prime ministers Theresa May and Matteo Renzi, respectively, according to media reports.

Domestically, Kishida hopes the state funeral can help consolidate his ruling base in Japan and appeal to the biggest faction in the Japanese ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - Abe faction, Liu said.  

The current prime minister also wants to stage "funeral diplomacy" to advocate Abe's "free and open Indo-Pacific." 

Yet the state funeral not only further caused Kishida administration's approval rate to plunge to a dangerous 30 percent at home, but also became a diplomatic embarrassment as "the numbers and influence of the coming dignitaries were not as expected, especially in sheer contrast to the Queen's funeral," said Da Zhigang, the expert on Northeast Asian studies. 

Since Abe was a former head of state, many countries sent their former leaders as well. The absence of US President Joe Biden may be taken by some countries as a wind vane for not sending top leaders and foreign dignitaries have to consider Japan's strong internal opposition to the ceremony, particularly the cult scandal, the expert said. 

China ties 

At the invitation of the Japanese side, Wan Gang, vice chairman of China's top political advisory body and former minister of science and technology, attended Abe's funeral on Tuesday, with the 50th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan only two days ahead. 

But observers sensed Japan's geopolitical calculations targeting China in the funeral. 

Liu believes Kishida wanted to use the state funeral to show off his diplomatic achievements with the US - hosting Biden, house speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier and this time Harris - and with more countries including the UK, Australia and India "to leverage more resources as the US-Japan alliance is insufficient to 'deal with China.'"

Kishida agreed in separate meetings on Tuesday with his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese and Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, to cooperate in achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific, according to the Japanese foreign ministry.

The three countries, along with the US, compose the Quad strategic grouping which is widely recognized as a bloc aiming at containing China. 

Commenting on British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly's Japan visit and attendance at Abe's funeral, Liu said Japan has enhanced its interaction with the UK in recent years and more so after the Queen's funeral in wishful thinking that after dragging the UK into the strategic realm against China, Commonwealth realms including Canada and New Zealand may follow suit. 

Observers warned the Taiwan question is clouding China-Japan relations, citing Abe's provocative remarks concerning the island of Taiwan after stepping down as prime minister and Japan's increasing interaction with secessionist forces in the island. 

At Tuesday's funeral, Japan included the island of Taiwan - an inalienable part of China's territory - among the names that were read aloud during flower offerings, according to the Japan Times. Daughter of infamous Taiwan secessionist Lee Teng-hui also attended. 

In response to a Japanese reporter's question regarding the matter, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday that Japan needs to observe the principles set out in the four China-Japan political documents and the solemn commitments it has made, handle the relevant matters in strict accordance with the one-Chine principle and refrain from providing any platform or opportunity for "Taiwan independence" separatist forces to engage in political manipulation.

Observers warned that increasing conservative tendencies in Japan could trigger more right-wing Japanese politicians to engage in political manipulation and provocations on the Taiwan question.

In its ties with China, Japan is not motivated by the goal of solving the main contradictions between the two countries, which means it will not stop provoking China in sensitive issues and will continue to strengthen its involvement in the US-led coterie in the Asia-Pacific in order to contain China, Wang Guangtao, an associate research fellow at the Center for Japanese Studies of the Shanghai-based Fudan University, told the Global Times earlier. 

At the moment when China-Japan relations face many uncertainties in a descending spiral, Kong Xuanyou, Chinese Ambassador to Japan, said in an exclusive interview with the Global Times that China and Japan should adhere to the four political documents and a series of consensuses, and not to touch each other's red line. 

The two sides should adhere to the positioning of the statement that "China and Japan are not threats to each other, but partners," increase trust and explain doubts to avoid misunderstandings. They should seek common ground while reserving differences so as to prevent the situation from escalating or even getting out of control, said the ambassador.