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Most Japanese opposed the state funeral for ex-Prime Minister Abe, polls show

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Japan, a rare state funeral to mourn the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Abe was assassinated while campaigning on July 8. Tokyo was under heavy security for the service today. There were all kinds of foreign dignitaries in attendance, including Vice President Kamala Harris. There were also protests because, as polls show, most Japanese oppose this state funeral. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Tokyo. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: You were just outside the event, I understand. Describe the scene.

KUHN: Yeah. This event was held at the Nippon Budokan Hall, which is used for sports and concerts. It began with Shinzo Abe's widow Akie bringing in her husband's ashes, and they were placed on an altar. And then politicians gave speeches. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida praised Abe's vision of what he called a free and open Indo-Pacific and a stronger alliance with the U.S. Outside the hall, thousands of people lined up to offer flowers to Abe. But in a sign of how divisive an issue this funeral was, down the street, scuffling broke out between protesters, Abe supporters and police.

MARTIN: Why? I mean, why are so many people opposed to the state funeral?

KUHN: Well, one poll shows that about 60% of Japanese oppose the state funeral, while 30% support it. Some critics argue that in Japan, the prime minister is the head of the government, and the emperor is the head of the state, so only the emperor should get a state funeral. Also, Abe's death opened a kind of can of worms with revelations about deep ties between Abe, his party and the Unification Church, sometimes known as the Moonies. Many Japanese felt the government didn't really come clean about that, and some just opposed his nationalistic and conservative policies.

MARTIN: So in light of all that, was the decision to hold the state funeral kind of a mistake?

KUHN: Well, I think the government didn't anticipate the intensity of public opposition. And in the nearly three months since Abe was killed, the Unification Church revelations started to really snowball. I spoke to Jeffrey Hall, an expert on Japanese politics at Kanda University of International Studies outside Tokyo. Here's how he described it.

JEFFREY HALL: This was meant to be a way of bringing attention to the success of Abe and then carrying on that success by enacting similar policies in the same direction. But because the scandal has consumed all of the attention of the people now, it's having the opposite effect.

MARTIN: Is this going to be politically damaging for the current prime minister?

KUHN: Well, some polls show that his popularity has plunged to under 30%. And if Kishida becomes a liability to his party, they could theoretically dump him. But Japan's opposition parties are really too weak to challenge him, and Kishida doesn't have to face voters in elections for another two years. Now, Shinzo Abe had a huge influence on Kishida. Kishida has been spending much of his administration trying to walk out from under Abe's shadow. And now that Abe is gone from the scene, this could theoretically free him up to deal with some of Japan's daunting political and economic challenges, security risks and many of the difficulties it faces now.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Tokyo, reporting on the state funeral of the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Thank you, Anthony.

KUHN: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.