Opposition is mounting plans to hold a state funeral for former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was shot dead earlier this month.
The cabinet on Friday approved arrangements for the funeral – only the second of its kind for a former Japanese leader in the postwar period – on 27 September.
Abe, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, died a fortnight ago after being shot from behind while making a campaign speech in the western city of Nara.
His violent death shocked a country with negligible rates of gun crime and sparked a debate over how best to honor the memory of the influential but divisive politician.
Abe served as prime minister for more than eight years over two terms, and was hugely influential in the ruling Liberal Democratic party even after he resigned in 2020.
Government officials have argued in favor of a state funeral, to be held at the Nippon Budokan in central Tokyo, claiming Abe had shown “outstanding leadership” in reviving Japan’s economy, strengthening its security ties with the US and overseeing the reconstruction of the region destroyed by the March 2011 triple disaster.
“We made this decision … due to Abe’s record as the longest-serving prime minister, during which he exerted leadership skills distinctive from others and bore heavy responsibility for dealing with a number of serious domestic and international issues,” the chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, said on Friday.
Matsuno said the event would be “non-denominational, simple and sombre”, adding that the estimated cost and number of attendees had yet to be decided.
Opposition politicians and civic groups questioned the use of taxpayers’ money for the funeral, where guests are expected to include foreign leaders.
They have also said the public was deeply divided over Abe’s legacy. “It clearly violates freedom of thought and conscience protected under the constitution,” Mizuho Fukushima, who leads the opposition Social Democratic party, told about 200 people protesting outside the prime minister’s office on Friday.
The Asahi Shimbun said it opposed any attempt to pressure people into mourning Abe. “We cannot help but worry accordingly [him] such special treatment will only widen the gap between those who supported Abe and those who did not, and hinder an objective evaluation of a political leader,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
On Thursday, 50 people filed for an injunction with the Tokyo district court seeking a halt to the use of public funds for the event, saying a state-sponsored funeral without parliamentary approval violated the constitutional right to freedom of belief.
A recent poll by the public broadcaster NHK found only 49% supported the idea of a state funeral for Abe, who inspired absolute loyalty among rightwingers in his party but horror among critics at home and abroad for his unapologetic nationalism.
Social media users complained about the cost and the possibility that the event could be exploited to celebrate Abe’s brand of conservatism and glorify his political legacy.
One Twitter user singled out the current prime minister, Fumio Kishida – an Abe protege who supports holding a state funeral – for criticism.
“Kishida always brags that he listens to the people, so why isn’t he doing it now?”
Others contrasted the government’s speedy decision on Abe’s funeral arrangements with the lack of action over the latest Covid-19 wave, with daily cases at record highs.
“Given they’re doing next to nothing about the pandemic, how did they manage to decide this so quickly?” one Twitter user wrote. “Take the money you’ll use for the funeral and do something about the coronavirus.”
A private funeral for Abe was held last week at a Buddhist temple in Tokyo, as large crowds gathered in the street to offer flowers.
The only other postwar Japanese leader to receive a state funeral, in 1967, was Shigeru Yoshida, who led the country after the second world war.
Abe’s alleged killer, Tetsuya Yamagami, told police he had targeted him for his links with the Unification church. He reportedly said his mother had made huge donations to the church two decades ago that had left the family bankrupt.