The funeral of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered by current Premier Fumio Kishida has mutated into a stormy political controversy. Image: Screengrab / Al Jazeera

Could the ghost of Shinzo Abe reach up from the grave and drag down Prime Minister Fumio Kishida with him? Only in a Japanese horror movie, perhaps – but today’s event is proving to be a nightmare for both Prime Minister Kishida and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The state funeral for Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister – murdered in July by a man infuriated by his links to a controversial religious group – got underway today (September 27), with multiple world leaders in attendance.

But as protesters hit Japanese streets amid a snowballing dispute over the high-profile ceremony, the vulnerability of Abe’s protégé Kishida has been exposed.

So serious is the uproar that even middle-of-the-road Japanese media are wondering whether Kishida, with his July upper-house electoral victory now long forgotten, may be forced to call a high-risk, lower-house election to rejuvenate support.

The funeral uproar illustrates the extent of Abe’s power – even after death. But with the hardliner now finally buried and with his powerful but headless party faction appeased by the funeral, the more liberal Kishida may finally be empowered to accelerate his own political trajectory.

A litmus test is upcoming on Thursday when all eyes will be on whether or not he addresses a high-profile event celebrating half a century of Beijing-Tokyo ties.

A heated farewell

Today’s funeral, reportedly attended by 4,500 mourners at the Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo, has had a long gestation period.

Abe was shot dead on July 8 – meaning he died two months before Queen Elizabeth II passed on September 9, but his funeral today took place after her September 19 farewell.

According to Japanese media, Abe’s funeral will cost taxpayers a cool 1.6 billion yen (US$11 million). Reflecting his high-profile role on the international stage, over 700 foreign guests including US Vice President Kamala Harris, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach are in town to pay respects.

Some 20,000 police have been mobilized to maintain order in a country that is riven between admirers and deriders of Abe, Japan’s longest-serving post-war prime minister.

While supporters gathered to pray and leave bouquets, opponents gathered to march. Much was good-natured – one man dressed as a “Pokemon” to bid farewell to “Abemon” – but unusually, for such an order-centric nation, TV news reports have also shown scuffles.

Abe served two terms in the hot seat between 2006-2007 and again between 2012 and 2020. He was also a key mover and shaker in the LDP, heading its largest faction. He anointed his long-term sidekick Yoshihide Suga as his successor, before Kishida, in turn, took over the reins of power after Suga resigned in September 2021.

It was Kishida who made the swift decision after Abe’s shock killing to hold a state funeral. But he has been remiss in outlining the reasoning and legal grounds behind his decision, leading many to wonder whether he took it in order to conciliate Abe’s hardline supporters within the party.

The LDP may be conservative but is a broad church. Take Kishida. Though he served in Abe’s premiership as foreign minister, he is widely considered to fall left of Abe on the political spectrum. And Kishida’s LDP faction is the party’s fourth largest; Abe’s was the biggest.

Regardless of Kishida’s reason for the decision, it has, as the timing of the funeral drew closer and closer, come to haunt him.

Even in death, Shinzo Abe casts a long shadow over Japanese politics. Image: Twitter

A politicized funeral from hell

The opposition has vocally opposed on the grounds of the flimsy precedents for state funerals for deceased premiers. In fact, only one – that of Shigeru Yoshida, who oversaw Japan’s stunning post-World War II recovery – has ever been held, in 1967. The main Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan is boycotting Abe’s funeral.

And while Abe was long in office, he was a divisive political figure. His “Abenomics” policy foundered on the rocks of corporate reform and wages remained largely static, but during his rule, the Japanese enjoyed near full employment.

Though he failed in his ambition to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, he won for his military expeditionary assets – marines and (upcoming) aircraft carriers – they had not deployed since World War II and some operational wriggle room via a 2014 constitutional “reinterpretation.”

Abe was widely seen as an internationalist compared to other Japanese politicians. He pioneered the concept “Indo-Pacific” and tied Japan ever more closely to the US while also establishing relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.

He also opened Japanese gates more widely than ever to foreign tourists and workers, and won the hosting rights for both the Rugby World Cup and the Olympic Games.

But he was widely considered a Japanese nationalist and historical revisionist who wanted to bury Tokyo’s Pacific War-era atrocities. Some former enemies bought in: Western and Southeast Asia nations enjoyed excellent relations with Abe, and a Japanese destroyer visited a Chinese naval review flying a “rising sun” ensign.

But he was despised in South Korea, where his 2015 deal to end the “comfort women” controversy with money and reparations was overturned and bilateral relations plummeted to their lowest nadir – one from which they have yet to recover.

Abe’s lingering power within the party may explain Kishida’s ongoing caution toward resetting South Korean relations.

Problematically, few ordinary Japanese have forgotten that Abe – a key, but divisive figure in Japanese politics – resigned amid a slew of scandals, staining his domestic legacy.

Adding especially virulent fuel to flames that are now singeing the LDP’s coat tails is an expanding series of post-murder revelations about the party’s ties to the Unification Church.

Abe’s killer committed his deed after his mother was allegedly tricked or coerced out of her savings by members of the church, which some consider a cult. The well-funded, South Korea-based church has been engaged in high-profile lobbying, mainly of political conservatives, in both Japan and the US.

In the aftermath of Abe’s death, as the extent of the church’s support for the LDP – which extended both to providing political funds and mobilizing members to assist the party during electoral stumping – became clear, an uproar ensued.

Abe’s funeral is proving to be a nightmare for Kishida. Halloween revelers in Shibuya, Tokyo, 2019. Photo: AFP

Post-mortem fallout

A series of media polls held this month has found that an escalating percentage of the public is against Abe’s state funeral.

A survey by the Yomiuri newspaper found 38% of citizens were in favor while 56% were against it. Another survey by broadcaster NHK found 32% were pro and 57% were con. And the most recent poll, by the Mainichi newspaper, found just 27% supported it while 62% did not.

This translates into dire news for Kishida himself. The prime minister is beset by multiple issues: a plummeting yen; surging inflation that has followed the Ukraine War; and a long, slow Covid recovery, under which inbound tourism has still not been fully reopened.

Kishida’s approval ratings have thus plummeted to the late 20% range, while his government’s ratings are now around 30% – what Kyodo News calls “the danger level.”

“The death of Queen Elizabeth II on 16 September highlights the sharp contrast between how the United Kingdom and Japan regard state funerals,” Jiro Yamaguchi, a Japanese academic who teaches in the politics department of Hosei University, wrote this week in the East Asia Forum.

“In the United Kingdom, the Queen was revered across party lines as a symbol of national unity….in contrast, Kishida decided to hold Abe’s state funeral for the political benefit of those in power, especially politicians within Abe’s faction.”

Continuing his theme, Yamaguchi suggested, “A state funeral for a monarch with no political power would be acceptable. But Abe was a polarising politician who exercised political power for over a decade.”

Other commentators have contrasted both the higher number and higher profile of guests who attended the royal funeral to those who attended Abe’s. So serious is the situation, some suggest, that Kishida may have to fall upon his katana.

After overseeing a surprisingly robust victory for the LDP in the Diet’s upper house election in July, he was expected to enjoy “three golden years” in which he could enact policy free of electoral encumbrances.

Now, “such a rosy future is unlikely,” Kyodo opined. “Kishida may be compelled to dissolve the [more powerful] lower house for an election in a desperate bid to restore his political strength, although it is uncertain whether the gamble would bear fruit.”

Even so, Abe’s funeral closes a political chapter. And that could just be a plus for Kishida.

FILE PHOTO: Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to media after National Security Council (NSC) meeting on a suspected nuclear test by North Korea, at prime minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Issei Kato
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida faces fast-falling approval ratings. Photo: Agencies

Japanese sources have told Asia Times informally that once the state funeral is over, Kishida may be empowered to navigate his own political course, given that LDP hardliners have lost Abe, their long-time power player.

One clue as to whether that hope is realistic or not is imminent.

On Thursday, China and Japan will celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties. Those relations are critical but intensely sensitive: China is Japan’s leading trade partner but is also the key competitor of Japan’s leading ally, the United States.

Relations are also strained by territorial disputes, and by sympathy among many Japanese – most notably the late Abe – for Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province that must be reincorporated to the mainland.

As a result, considerable speculation hangs over whether Kishida will attend an event on the day, hosted by Japan’s big business lobby, and Japan-China groups.

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