Commentary: Shinzo Abe’s funeral furore is Japan’s most unedifying debate
A partisan debate over a state funeral for former PM Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated at an election campaign event, embarrasses Japan on the world stage, says Bloomberg Opinion’s Gearoid Reidy.
TOKYO: Spare a thought for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, watching the pomp and circumstance of last week’s state funeral for Queen Elizabeth II.
Kishida’s plan to hold a ceremonial farewell for Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier who was assassinated on the campaign trail just two days before upper house elections this July, was likely intended to be a similarly uniting moment for the country.
Instead, it has deepened partisan divides, collapsed Kishida’s polling numbers, and is threatening to turn him into Japan’s latest short-term leader.
State funerals are, admittedly, an uncommon sight in Japan. Only a handful have taken place in the postwar period, and only once for a prime minister - that of Shigeru Yoshida, the man who began to rebuild Japan after World War II.
Other officials, such as the great Cold War-era prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone have been given ceremonies one level below, with costs split between the ruling party and the government.
The idea behind Tuesday’s state funeral was to give Abe a greater send-off in a mark of respect to his status as the longest-serving prime minister in history, his international renown and in recognition of the tragic circumstances of his death. Instead, it has stirred an unedifying debate that embarrasses Japan on the world stage.
EMOTIONS RUN HIGH
While majorities backed the idea of the funeral in polls shortly after Abe was killed, latest surveys show around 60 per cent now oppose it. Opponents have lodged complaints over everything from the cost to the legal basis for holding the ceremony. Emotions have run so high that one man set himself on fire in protest.
But at its simplest, opposition to the funeral is explained by partisanship - a chance for Abe’s political opponents to score points on the former prime minister in death, having failed to take him down in life.
For a man who won three straight elections and whose death inspired national days of mourning in places as far afield as India and Brazil, it seems odd that an event to mark his passing should trigger such hatred in his home country.
Other nations see little issue with marking even divisive leaders; the UK taxpayer spent £3.6 million (US$3.8 million) to send off Margaret Thatcher, who was so unpopular in some parts that her passing triggered street parties.
Abe had a singular ability to drive his critics around the bend. In life, he was unfairly accused of everything from attempting to remilitarise Japan to being single-handedly responsible for widening the gap between rich and poor.
For all the talk of Japan’s supposedly compliant press, the latter half of his term in office was dominated by media stirrings of cronyism allegations.
GOOD FOR JAPAN TO HOST FOREIGN DIGNITARIES
Kishida has certainly mismanaged the situation. He first dithered on the decision, then moved too hastily. The funeral date was schedule too far after Abe’s passing, allowing the issue to dominate the airwaves. When complaints over the cost first surfaced, the government allowed it to linger in the news cycle by initially low-balling the estimate.
But the incumbent is nonetheless right to go ahead with this event. Japan should be proud of Abe’s achievements on the world stage - or at least recognise that he boosted the country’s standing.
He is likely the only Japanese leader of the 21st century that many outside the country could name; he looms large over policies that helped lend new life to a country that teetered on the economic edge, and made Japan a key foreign policy player in Asia and beyond.
Concerns about expense are difficult to take in good faith.
Foreign relations, like any friendships, have intangible costs and benefits. It’s indisputably a good thing for Japan’s standing on the world stage to be hosting foreign dignitaries in a celebration of the life of one of the country’s greatest diplomats.
A one-time use of the state jet is estimated at around 200 million yen (US$1.4 million), yet few complain that Japan’s Emperor attended the funeral of another hereditary, non-elected head of state when the Queen’s own farewell was held. If there are issues with money being spent, it should be on the police protection that failed to do its job in Nara last July.
Abe was no saint; few who get to the top of the political world are. Yet concerns over his supposed “nationalistic” tendencies were always overblown.
At the heart of democracy is an appreciation that political opponents are worthy of respect even if we disagree on policy. Should they achieve a mandate for power, as Abe did longer than anyone, even one’s opponents have earned a right to rule. Even Abe’s staunchest detractors must accept that he loved his country, and worked for it throughout his entire career right up until the very day he was gunned down.
In some ways, the debate highlights how Japan will struggle without him. There are few operators who can both unite the factional Liberal Democratic Party, and use the levers of power in the way Abe could. A strong leader is needed in a political system that gravitates toward inaction.
It may not be fair that Abe is granted this honour while others are not; yet there was nothing fair about Abe’s death. Now’s not the time for scoring political points and settling old grievances; it’s a moment to recognise a great leader’s achievements - or at the very least, allow others to do so.