With flowers, prayers and a 19-gun salute, Japan honoured slain former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday at the first state funeral for a former premier in 55 years – a ceremony that has become as divisive as he was in life.
The ceremony started at 2:00 pm (0500 GMT), with Abe’s ashes carried into the Nippon Budokan Hall in central Tokyo by his widow, Akie, to music from a military band and the booms of the honour-guard salute.
Inside the Budokan, better known as a concert venue, a large portrait of Abe draped with black ribbon hung over a bank of green, white and yellow flowers. Nearby, a wall of photos showed him strolling with G7 leaders, holding hands with children and visiting disaster areas.
Abe’s killing at a July 8 campaign rally set off a flood of revelations about ties between lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) he once ran and the Unification Church, which critics call a cult, sparking a backlash against current premier Fumio Kishida.
With his support ratings dragged to their lowest ever by the controversy, Kishida has apologised and vowed to cut party ties to the church.
But opposition to honouring Abe with a state funeral, the first such event since 1967, has persisted, fed by an $11.5-million price tag to be borne by the state at a time of economic pain for ordinary citizens.
Japan’s longest-serving prime minister was a divisive figure who was dogged by scandals.
An unapologetic nationalist, Abe pushed the country toward a muscular defence posture that many now see as prescient amid growing concern about China, but others criticised as too hawkish.
In one part of downtown Tokyo, protesters waved signs and chanted “No state funeral” to the tune of a guitar.
But thousands of mourners flooded the funeral venue from early morning, forcing organisers to open the hall half an hour early. Within hours, about 10 000 people had laid flowers and bowed in silent prayer before Abe’s picture, television showed, with far more waiting in long queues.