A Befitting State Funeral for Abe but Fresh Challenges Confront Kishida
Prof Rajaram Panda

September 27, 2022 marked an important day in Japan’s history as Japan organised a state funeral to the slain former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo at the Nippon Budokan in central Tokyo. It may be recalled that Japan’s longest-servicing leader in post-war Japan was assassinated by 42-year old Tetsuya Yamagami with scrappy hand-made gun during a campaign on 8 July in Nara. It transpired soon that Yamagami was perturbed with Abe’s perceived involvement with the Unification Church. Yamagami believed that his mother made a donation of over 100 million yen driving him into penury. He believed that Abe with his support to the Church had impoverished his family. Though a private condolence ceremony was held soon after Abe’s tragic death, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida soon announced a state funeral to honour his predecessor.

Over 4,000 were in attendance to honour the slain leader. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Japan to pay his final tribute to his and India’s dear friend and was visibly emotional in offering a floral wreath. Abe was a phenomenal individual and he was the one instrumental in taking India-Japan relationship to a greater height. Millions of Indian hearts bleed over this colossal loss.

Unnecessary Controversy

Soon after Kishida announced to hold a state funeral in a press conference on 13 July, controversy erupted with political parties divided on their positions. Even opinion polls showed that while the younger segment of the population endorsed Kishida’s decision, the elderly segment were unwilling to support. This segment of the population was unwilling to endorse a lavish, tax-payer funded funeral. Some opposition lawmaker even boycotted and they were unwilling to support $12 million expenditure out of tax payer money towards the event. This spend is reportedly more expensive than Queen Elizabeth’s farewell. The people were unwilling to support this huge drain of resource when they are facing economic hardship post-Covid. Japan’s last fully state-funded funeral for a Prime Minister was held for Shigeru Yoshida in 1967. As a consequence, Kishida’s approval ratings plummeted to 29 per cent, a level that could pose a threat to political stability.

The main opposition stemmed from the revelation that Abe had links with the Unification Church. It also soon transpired that 179 of the 379 lawmakers had links with the Church. This is a malaise that afflicts the Japanese political system. Kishida did try to address to this by reshuffling his Cabinet but found it difficult to drop some influential members of the party. So, that was a half measure.

Besides the controversy domestically, controversy also surfaced regarding some invitees from foreign countries. In particular, the invitation sent to Myanmar and Taiwan became controversial and posed foreign policy challenge to the Kishida government.

First is the case of Myanmar. As the world is aware, the military coup in Myanmar dethroned a democratically elected government evoked world-wide condemnation. When the Japanese government invited the Myanmar ambassador Soe Han to Japan to the funeral ceremony, international human rights groups were quick to denounce the decision. The Human Rights Watch organisation saw this as an act of approving the military regime. Though Japanese government expressed “grave concern” and joined the Western countries in calling the junta to immediately cease violence against the civilians, release detainees and restore Myanmar’s democratic political system, the human rights groups were unconvinced and unwilling to endorse Kishida’s decision to invite Myanmar’s ambassador to the funeral. [1]

As a matter of principle, Japan extended invitation to all countries with which it maintains diplomatic relations to Abe’s funeral. Invitation to Myanmar fell within this ambit of diplomatic protocol. Russia which has emerged as the pariah state after its military operation in Ukraine also received an invitation. Overlooking the protests by Myanmar residents in Japan and human rights groups, Soe Han did attend the service. The military uploaded Han’s photo at the Budokan on the embassy website. By doing so, it was trying to prove that it was the legitimate government in Myanmar. Such justification went counter to the demand of the global community not to endorse the military regime and questioned Japan’s decision to extend a state invitation to Myanmar. It was further argued that though Britain too extended invitation to all countries with which it has diplomatic relations to the state funeral for Queen Elizabeth II held on 19 September, three countries – Russia, Myanmar and Syria – were not invited. The Human Rights groups expected that similar yardstick should have been applied by Japan by excluding the military regime in Myanmar.

Second: Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral unilaterally created a domestic storm. The widely circulated Asahi Shimbun observed in an editorial that by holding the state funeral for Abe, Kishida only widened the rift in society.2] Kishida was blamed that he did not consult the party colleagues and other opposition parties in advance before announcing his decision to hold a state funeral for Abe. He was also accused of ignoring the opinion polls outcome where majority opinion expressed disapproval for a state funeral. The risk now is that Kishida’s decision could polarise the society further, posing a bigger challenge for democracy in Japan.

The established custom of organising funerals for former prime ministers has been that both the government and ruling party co-host them, meaning thereby the costs incurred are to be shared. That was the case for even Yasuhiro Nakasone who was Prime Minister for five years and died at the ripe age of 101 years and 186 days in November 2019. The objection from people would not have been so strong had Kishida applied the same principle that was applied for Nakasone. It needs to be remembered however, that Kishida was not setting a new precedent; more than half century ago in 1967, former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida was accorded a state funeral and Kishida merely followed that example. Though Kishida’s decision would be scrutinised for days and months, he has additional responsibility to answer the critics who question his decision.

Kishida has weak legal base to answer his critics. The imperial edict of 1926 empowered the Emperor to use his prerogative in awarding a state funeral to individuals who, in his opinion, served the nation exceptionally well. But after Japan’s defeat, the Emperor has been stripped off of that power in the post-war democratic system and sovereignty now rests with the people. This means that majority of the people enjoy the right to decide whether to hold a state funeral for a leader or not. Kishida apparently is seen to have violated this principle.

The reason why opinion polls showed disapproval to Kishida’s decision was because though Abe was the longest serving Prime Minister, his reputation was a mixed bag. The Asahi Shimbun editorial remind us that his negative legacies include his “high-handed and arbitrary style of Diet management and refusal to take his accountability seriously, as well as his involvement in scandals related to Morimoto Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution and his annual cherry blossom viewing parties for his supporters”.

Though his achievements domestically such as the Abenomics and Womenomics were stand alone measures, the results were not as expected. The allegations of his involvement in scandals and part outcome to his economic measures only fomented criticism and left his policies open to debate. Kishida was probably persuaded by Abe’s future-oriented policies in the fields of national security and diplomacy, including the right to collective self-defence, and enactment of the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets. The real challenge for Kishida would be to regain the people’s trust that seems to have been lost a bit.

Third: the invitation to Taiwan to the state funeral presented a far bigger challenge to Kishida than the invitation to Myanmar as it directly impacted the already troubled Japan-China relations. The Kishida government decided to add Taiwan to the list of names of countries, international agencies and other official entities making floral offerings. This did not go unnoticed in China. Beijing issued a sharp rebuke almost immediately. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Weibin warned that Japan should “refrain from providing any platform or opportunity for ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces to engage in political manipulation”. Chou Shyue-yow, secretary-general of the Taiwan-Japan Relations Association, an organization that serves as a pipeline for Japan-Taiwan exchanges, was quick to rebut China’s objection, saying that there was no justification for Beijing’s protests concerning a Japan-Taiwan bilateral matter of a humanitarian nature.[3]

Though many world leaders including US Vice President Kamala Harris and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, besides Prime Minister Modi attended the state funeral, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to cancel in order to lead the response to a powerful storm that had devastated Canada. China was insensitive in commenting that the absence of this prominent guest led to Kishida’s “condolence diplomacy” short of its goal and embarrassed Kishida.

South Korea was equally insensitive in commenting that public disapproval to Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for Abe and the consequent faltering popularity was the “biggest reason” for the lack of improvement in Japan-Korea relations. In this sombre occasion of mourning of a leader of global standing, such reaction was uncalled for and could have been best avoided. This was not the occasion for Kishida bashing.

But China exposed its most ugly face in rejoicing when Abe was shot dead. Wang Wenbin was not only undiplomatic but utterly insensitive in openly saying that Abe was destined to die the way he did because he dared to “talk nonsense” on the Taiwan issue and “challenge the bottom line of Chinese people”.[4] Wang’s remarks led to disgusting celebrations by the people of China. The shooter was seen as a hero and one remark stated that the marksmanship needs to improve as he missed the head. Only a barbarian could make such outlandish statement.

The state funeral over, Kishida now shall have to navigate sensitive public opinion and regain the trust as well as steer through the country’s foreign policy on the lines outlined by Abe that serve the nation’s and region’s interests. It is difficult to visualise if the vacuum left by Abe shall ever be fulfilled but the example of his leadership shall guide the future leaders in Japan to take Japan’s destiny for a better future.


[1]Yuichi Nobira, “Japan criticized for Myanmar envoy attending Abe state funeral”, Asahi Shimbun, 29 September 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14730334
[2] “Kishida widens rift in society by staging state funeral for Abe”, The Asahi Shimbun, editorial, 28 September 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14729348
[3]Shohei Mitsuka and Tatsuya Tokiyoshi, “Critics in China and South Korea Carp about Shinzo Abe State Funeral”, Japan Forward, Japan Forward, 29 September 2022, https://japan-forward.com/critics-in-china-and-south-korea-carp-about-shinzo-abe-state-funeral/
[4] Jennifer Zeng, “ Abe’s Death Unmasks the Communist Party”, Japan Forward, 15 July 2022, https://japan-forward.com/in-china-celebration-over-shinzo-abes-death-unmasks-the-communist-party/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source: https://www.visiontimes.com/2022/09/28/japan-bids-farewell-to-former-prime-minister-abe-at-state-funeral.html

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
13 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us