Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.10.13

A dignified farewell should transcend politics

Though some were divided over Abe's state funeral, it was a fitting goodbye for the nation's longest-serving prime minister

the japan times on September 29, 2022

On Tuesday, I attended the state funeral for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Despite controversies over the ceremonial event, I had decided that morning that I must act with common sense and decency as a citizen of this country, and transcend personal friendships, political positions or creeds.

The mainstream Japanese media was sharply divided. The liberal Asahi, Mainichi and Tokyo newspapers each carried editorials titled “Abe’s ‘State Funeral’ Deepens Divide at Prime Minister’s Discretion,” “Heavy Lesson from Memorial without Consensus,” and “Verify ‘Abe Politics’ after Divisive State Funeral.” All criticized the state funeral for having no national consensus.

In contrast, the conservative Yomiuri and Sankei newspapers respectively argued that “Many mourned him in honor of his achievements” and “We wish to show Japan’s civility,” while the economic daily Nikkei’s editorial board wrote, “The decision-making process should have been more careful in light of criticism.” As the mainstream media would have it, Japan’s public opinion was completely divided.

But having actually attended the funeral, there was a different atmosphere. The funeral was scheduled to begin at 2:00 p.m., but the bus that took us to the funeral site departed at 11:00 a.m. From the window of the bus, I could see literally thousands of ordinary people — young and old, men and women — lining the streets all the way to the altar set up near the Nippon Budokan hall, the site of the funeral.

Given the warm weather, it was surprising that so many people came out into the streets, each carrying a bouquet of flowers, even though they could have mourned Abe via the live television coverage. It was exactly the same scene as that of Abe’s funeral service held at Zojoji Temple in Tokyo on July 12. I sensed that they were the real silent majority representing the public.

On the other hand, there were several demonstrations held around the site of the ceremony. One group of protesters shouted over loudspeakers, “Oppose the state funeral” and “Stop the Abe funeral.” Similar events were held in front of the nation’s Parliament building and a park near the venue where the chairman of the Japanese Communist Party and the leader of the Social Democratic Party were reportedly shouting, “We do not accept a state funeral without legal basis that violates the Constitution.”

According to the organizers, 15,000 people attended the rally in front of the Parliament building alone. Judging from the rallies and media footage, however, that number appears to be inflated as the number of protesters seemed to be only a few thousand at most. Also, many of the protesters appeared to be mobilized labor union-related senior citizens, with very few young people in attendance. I sensed that they were the typical politically-motivated “vocal minority” of the hard left.

Amid the furor, the funeral was dignified, solemn and sophisticated. While I fully respect the rights of a vocal minority to protest and express their opposition to a state funeral, I felt during the ceremony that I could never agree with them.

The above-mentioned Sankei’s editorial touched on Georgia Ambassador Teimuraz Lezhava’s tweet earlier this month that called for respect and decency. Below is his full post on Twitter.

“It is disappointing to see the media and some Japanese politicians saying this and that about the state funeral. What’s disturbing is the unacceptable behavior toward the deceased. Isn’t it the virtue of Japan that if there’s even one guest from abroad, the whole nation comes together to welcome the person?”

I can’t agree more. Is there any country in the world other than Japan that divides its own nation by turning a state funeral into a political issue?

The most poignant moment of the ceremony was former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s eulogy. He said, “I was truly happy during the seven years and eight months we spent together in the Prime Minister’s Office, sharing both the hardships and joy. I recall that not only I but all of the staff worked cheerfully and vigorously during those challenging days. I will say it again and again. Prime Minister Abe, you were a true leader for our country, Japan.”

He concluded: “I feel deeply lonely and saddened. Thank you very much, Mr. Prime Minister. Please rest in peace.”

Suga went out of his way to call Abe Mr. Prime Minister. When Suga finished his eulogy, the audience erupted in spontaneous applause — something highly unusual during funerals in Japan. The applause, I believe, truly showed the significance of Abe’s state funeral.