August 25th marked the 49th day since former prime minister Abe Shinzo passed away after he was gunned down while giving a campaign speech. In Buddhism, this is the day wherein the soul of the deceased achieves rebirth, and people took to social media to pray, share positive recollections of the late politician, and grapple with the horrific manner of his death.
Criticism, however, also abounded. Abe was without question an influential political figure, albeit one with a tarnished and complex legacy that polarized as many as it enamored. His death pulled the curtain back on the controversial relationships between political parties and new religions, particularly the Family Coalition for World Peace and Unification, aka the Unification Church. So, when Prime Minister Kishida announced Abe will have a state funeral on September 27th at the Nippon Budokan, the news was met with anger and suspicion. Kishida stated the funeral will show that Japan refuses to allow violence to threaten democracy, but is that all the state funeral is really for?
The July 22th announcement quickly divided the public. According to an August 7th JNN poll, 45% opposed the funeral, with 42% in favor . An ongoing Yahoo! Japan poll currently shows 72% are against the funeral, with 27% supporting it . Election Gals (選挙ギャルズ), a group comprised of university students, office workers, and election volunteers, held a “Love Peace Parade” in Tokyo to oppose the funeral and constitutional revision . Approximately 1,200 people marched outside Shinjuku Station on August 16th protesting the funeral . Many expressed the sentiment that while Abe’s death was a tragedy, that isn’t an excuse to unequivocally glorify him.
This anger is only to be expected given how the Unification Church’s questionable practices and cult-like behavior are now known to a wider audience. Seven of the fourteen ministers removed during Kishida’s Cabinet reshuffling had ties with the Unification Church , with more facing scrutiny over past dealings with the Church. One poll revealed 77% of respondents wanted clarification on the government’s relationship with the Unification Church . Add inflation and the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, and it’s only understandable many find a state funeral in poor taste.
More Than Honoring the Dead
Even a brief foray into Japan’s past state funerals is enough to glean how they’re not just about honoring the deceased. Historian and state funeral expert Miyama Junichi says the first official state funeral (国葬, kokusou) was in 1878 for statesman and Meiji Restoration figurehead Okubo Toshimichi, assassinated by disgruntled samurai from the Kaga Domain . His funeral procession was a lavish affair attended by hundreds. One newspaper described how “men and women crowded like ants in the streets to have a look at the funeral, the splendor of which they greatly admired, but the sadness of their feelings made them all very subdued and quiet” . Political instability and lack of faith in the government made his funeral crucial to unifying the country under a single emotion.
The 1926 State Funeral Order officially legalized state funerals for the imperial family and persons of special merit, mostly prime ministers. Like Okubo’s funeral, these state funerals helped elevate other interests and manipulate public opinion. For instance, in 1943 the government held a state funeral of Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, killed in action when US forces shot his plane down, with the hopes of reigniting sputtering support for the war. The decree was abolished in 1947 following the overhaul of Japan’s constitution during the Allied Occupation. With the exception of prime minister Yoshida Shigeru’s funeral in 1967, joint funerals have become the norm, where the ruling LDP foots part of the cost rather than rely entirely on taxpayer funds.
Abe’s state funeral certainly isn’t the first to meet public and political opposition. In a Gendai article, religious studies scholar Shimada Hiroshi refers to the heavy opposition from House of Representative members to the 1922 state funeral of prime minister Yamagata Aritomo , whose popularity tanked following a public fallout with the imperial family a year prior. The funeral went on despite the lack of unanimous approval and met brutal media criticism.
Indeed, the snap decision to hold a state funeral for Abe has many raising their eyebrows. A group of academics and lawyers has even filed a lawsuit claiming the Cabinet bypassed the Diet when it approved the state funeral . Another group filed an injunction on similar claims, which the Tokyo Court ultimately rejected . Shimada speculates Kishida saw his chance to capitalize on the shocking manner of Abe’s death and immediately began plans for a state funeral. He points out that funerals in the corporate and yakuza worlds provide the perfect opportunity for successors to elevate their social standing. How smoothly someone carries out a predecessor’s funeral goes a long way toward establishing respect and social credibility. With many domestic and foreign politicians expected to attend Abe’s funeral, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Kishida banking on a similar outcome.
Too Late for National Mourning?
Unification Church ties aside, time is another factor that could potentially dampen the funeral’s impact. Abe’s private funeral took place on July 12, four days after his death. Mourners flocked the streets outside Zojoji Temple to bid farewell as the hearse bearing his body drove away. But if the government wants the people’s financial and emotional investment, their hopes may be in vain.
Shimada points out that most state funerals took place days after someone’s death, but Abe’s is scheduled roughly two and a half months after his death. Since Abe has already been buried, this won’t be a typical state funeral, another point of contention for many. Regardless, expecting people to harbor their grief for that long is a tall order. With more information regarding the Unification Church coming to light, that span of time leading up to September 27 could become a breeding ground for more dissent and scathing critiques of Abe and the LDP. Evidently, what the people want isn’t mourning, but transparency and accountability.
2. 安倍元首相の国葬を9月27日に行うと閣議決定、あなたの意見は？. Yahoo! Japan News.
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5. 旧統一教会巡り7閣僚交代、防衛相に浜田氏 第2次岸田改造内閣が発足. Reuters.
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9. [これが安倍元首相の国葬が結構もめる原因ー時期があまりに遅すぎる. Gendai.
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11. Tokyo court rejects request to halt state funeral for ex-PM Abe. Mainichi Shinbun.