With prayers, flowers and flags draped in black ribbons, Japan on Tuesday said goodbye to Shinzo Abe, the polarizing figure who dominated politics as the country’s longest prime minister before being gunned down at a campaign rally last week.
Amidst a large police presence, men in black suits and black ties joined women in black dresses and pearl necklaces as they entered Tokyo’s central Jojoji Temple for a private funeral service. Spectators lined the nearby sidewalks under gray skies in the oppressive summer heat, with one woman holding flowers.
Hundreds of people came to the temple on Monday evening to pay their respects to Abe, who was killed at the age of 67. His murder on Friday by an unemployed man armed with homemade firearms stunned a country where both gun crime and political violence are extremely rare.
The ceremony, scheduled for 13:00 (5:00 CET), was closed to the media and limited to family and close friends. Abe’s widow, Aki, was the main mourner.
After the ceremony, a hearse with Abe’s body will pass through downtown Tokyo.
The procession will take place in the political center of the capital, Nagatacho, including landmarks such as the parliament building, which Abe first entered as a young MP in 1993 after the death of his politician father, and the office from which he ruled the country twice. Prime Minister, the longer from 2012 to 2020.
From early morning, long lines of people dressed in black lined up outside the temple, interspersed with others in informal clothes with backpacks.
Keiko Noumi, a 58-year-old teacher, was one of many who came to lay prayers and flowers at a large photo of Abe on the temple grounds, showing him in a plain white shirt, laughing with his hands on his hips.
“There was a sense of security when he was prime minister in charge of the country,” she said. “I really supported him, so it’s very unfortunate.”
Others lined up in front of the headquarters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to make offerings to the makeshift temple, which will stand until Friday. Party workers come out to offer iced barley tea to mourners sweating in the stuffy air.
Abe’s complex legacy still matters
Abe was perhaps the most divisive leader in recent Japanese history, infuriating liberals with his revisionist views of history and dreams of military expansion. He was also the oldest and, by many accounts, the most influential.
For current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, this complex legacy will go a long way as he considers realizing his mentor’s unfulfilled political goals after their ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s big victory in parliamentary elections on Sunday, just days after Abe’s death.
Kishida gained significant political power through the surge of emotions and vows of voters’ resilience after the assassination, but he also lost his party’s most powerful force, Abe.
“Now Kishida is facing an increasingly murky political situation,” the liberal newspaper Asahi said in an editorial. “The death of Abe, who led the largest wing of the LDP, will certainly change the balance of power in the party.”
Kishida made clear his immediate priorities after the election: “The unity of the party is more important than anything else.”
But he must also quickly deal with rising worries about rising prices and a stagnant economy, even as he tries to figure out how to bolster Japan’s defenses in the face of an aggressive China, Russia and North Korea.
And then there is Abe’s polarizing nationalist agenda, much of which remains unfinished, including his efforts to boost patriotism in schools, withdraw apologies made in the 1990s for Japanese aggression during the war, and a controversial and divisive revision plan. Japanese renunciation of war. The constitution gave the army more power.
How Kishida manages Abe’s still significant political presence may determine his success as a leader.
At the heart of Abe’s enduring influence – he stepped down from the top job in 2020 – is a paradox.
He alienated many in Japan, as well as war victims in China and Korea, with his hawkish foreign and security policy and his ultra-conservative, sometimes revisionist stance on so-called historical issues related to Japan’s actions during the war.
Abe has opposed post-World War II treaties and the verdicts of the tribunal that tried Japanese war criminals, and has been a driving force in efforts to whitewash war atrocities and end war apologies.
However, the Japanese electorate brought him to power in six elections. And his work to forge an alliance with the United States and unite like-minded democracies as a counterweight to China’s assertiveness has won him the sympathy of the American and European elites.
His long hold on power, even amid criticism of his more radical views, can be attributed to voters’ desire for stability and a better economy, Abe’s stranglehold on the conservative wing of his party, and the helplessness of the opposition.
“I lost a friend”
Tributes poured in from international leaders, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made a brief stop on his way to the US from Southeast Asia on Monday morning to pay his respects.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Taiwanese Vice President William Lai, who made a private visit as a family friend, also joined the mourners.
Around 2,000 condolence messages have been received from around the world, according to the Kyodo news agency.
French leader Emmanuel Macron expressed his condolences in footage posted on the country’s official Twitter account after he visited the Japanese embassy in Paris.
“I remember all our meetings and joint work, especially during my visit (to Japan) in 2019 … I lost a friend,” Macron said solemnly.
“He served his country with great courage and bravery.”
The suspected killer, arrested at the scene and identified by police as Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, believed Abe was promoting a religious group to which his mother made a “huge donation,” the Kyodo news agency reported, citing investigators.
The Unification Church, known for its mass weddings and devoted followers, said on Monday that the suspect’s mother was one of its members.
Yamagami fired at Abe from behind, firing two bullets from a 40 cm improvised weapon wrapped in black duct tape.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a news conference on Tuesday that the Japanese government will consider the need to further regulate homemade weapons.
“We know that current regulations severely restrict firearms, whether they are handmade or not,” he said.
Satoshi Ninoyu, head of the National Public Safety Commission, told a press conference Tuesday that he ordered that a team be set up to investigate the security situation surrounding Abe’s assassination.
“We are taking this incident very seriously,” the Nikkei Shimbun quoted him as saying.