Argument

Shinzo Abe’s State Funeral Is as Controversial as He Was

The ceremony for the assassinated former prime minister marks the end of an era.

the Nippon Budokan, the venue for the state funeral of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe
the Nippon Budokan, the venue for the state funeral of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe
Police officers and a working dog stand guard in front of the Nippon Budokan, the venue for the state funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in Tokyo on Sept. 26. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images
By , a journalist in New York, previously based in Tokyo.

The first and—until this Tuesday—the last state funeral for a prime minister in postwar Japan took place on another warm Tuesday in fall. Shigeru Yoshida had died two weeks before at the age of 89, and on Oct. 31, 1967, the state honored the man who had led the country during the uncertain and turbulent American occupation and the years of independence that followed. In San Francisco, in 1951, he had signed the peace treaty that legally ended the war, and he had become a living, breathing embodiment of the new democratic nation—the “new Japan”—birthed from the rubble and fire of conflict.

The ceremony began in Oiso, in Japan’s Kanagawa prefecture, at Yoshida’s estate, where a column of uniformed men with rifles in hand stood on a lawn. His eldest son, the writer and critic Kenichi Yoshida, held a box with the ashes of his father and walked with slow and rhythmic steps to a stately black car. The car set off for Tokyo, down streets lined with mourners, their heads bowed in prayer, and it soon arrived at the Nippon Budokan, a stadium near the Imperial Palace. The masses had thronged outside, and officials and foreign diplomats had gathered inside, where the mood was formal and subdued. The younger Yoshida walked up the center aisle with his father’s ashes, passing the box to Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who in turn gave it to three uniformed men of the Self-Defense Forces. They ferried it to an altar covered with thousands of chrysanthemum flowers and a 50-foot portrait of the deceased, hanging high above the ground.

The portrait looked out upon a crowd of politicians and foreign diplomats, gathered in a venue built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in a capital teeming with construction and growth, in a nation crossed by new bullet trains, symbols of stability and economic might. (Though in truth Japan was on the cusp of instability and protest.) It was peace and prosperity shaped, in part, by the policies of Yoshida decades earlier, when the nation’s leadership traded military prowess and complete independence from the United States for robust industry and economic might while cementing the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in power, in what became known as the “Yoshida Doctrine,” “San Francisco System,” or even “Yoshida Deal.” His death then seemed to mark the close of an epic that began at the end of World War II in 1945. “And in itself,” the historian John Dower wrote, “the death wrote the final sentence to the chapter called ‘postwar,’ which Yoshida more than any other single Japanese personified.”

the Nippon Budokan, the venue for the state funeral of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe
the Nippon Budokan, the venue for the state funeral of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe

Police officers and a working dog stand guard in front of the Nippon Budokan, the venue for the state funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in Tokyo on Sept. 26. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

The first and—until this Tuesday—the last state funeral for a prime minister in postwar Japan took place on another warm Tuesday in fall. Shigeru Yoshida had died two weeks before at the age of 89, and on Oct. 31, 1967, the state honored the man who had led the country during the uncertain and turbulent American occupation and the years of independence that followed. In San Francisco, in 1951, he had signed the peace treaty that legally ended the war, and he had become a living, breathing embodiment of the new democratic nation—the “new Japan”—birthed from the rubble and fire of conflict.

The ceremony began in Oiso, in Japan’s Kanagawa prefecture, at Yoshida’s estate, where a column of uniformed men with rifles in hand stood on a lawn. His eldest son, the writer and critic Kenichi Yoshida, held a box with the ashes of his father and walked with slow and rhythmic steps to a stately black car. The car set off for Tokyo, down streets lined with mourners, their heads bowed in prayer, and it soon arrived at the Nippon Budokan, a stadium near the Imperial Palace. The masses had thronged outside, and officials and foreign diplomats had gathered inside, where the mood was formal and subdued. The younger Yoshida walked up the center aisle with his father’s ashes, passing the box to Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who in turn gave it to three uniformed men of the Self-Defense Forces. They ferried it to an altar covered with thousands of chrysanthemum flowers and a 50-foot portrait of the deceased, hanging high above the ground.

The portrait looked out upon a crowd of politicians and foreign diplomats, gathered in a venue built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in a capital teeming with construction and growth, in a nation crossed by new bullet trains, symbols of stability and economic might. (Though in truth Japan was on the cusp of instability and protest.) It was peace and prosperity shaped, in part, by the policies of Yoshida decades earlier, when the nation’s leadership traded military prowess and complete independence from the United States for robust industry and economic might while cementing the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in power, in what became known as the “Yoshida Doctrine,” “San Francisco System,” or even “Yoshida Deal.” His death then seemed to mark the close of an epic that began at the end of World War II in 1945. “And in itself,” the historian John Dower wrote, “the death wrote the final sentence to the chapter called ‘postwar,’ which Yoshida more than any other single Japanese personified.”

The state funeral for former Japanese Premier Shigeru Yoshida in 1967.
The state funeral for former Japanese Premier Shigeru Yoshida in 1967.

The state funeral for former Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on Oct. 1, 1967. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

At 2:10, the Budokan went silent as sirens rang across the country, signaling the climax of what many perceived as the end of an era. Yet many carried on. “Ah? What are you doing?” a teenage girl asked people bowed in silent prayer in Ginza. Sato and his cabinet had organized the funeral through a cabinet decision, rather than a public mandate or debate in the Diet, skirting the abolishment, in 1947, of the prewar state funeral ordinance. While some were confused by the proceedings, others were outright opposed. Critics questioned the justifications for a state funeral and denounced the arbitrary legal basis, arguing that the ceremony was a vestige of the imperial past, better left dead. Even a reporter at the Yomiuri Shimbun later described the day’s events as “an emotionless state funeral.”

Now, with the state funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this Tuesday, the pomp, the pageantry, the mourning, the eulogies, the criticism, and the spectacle will repeat once again. It is the second state funeral for a politician since the end of the war nearly eight decades ago and the first in over 50 years. “Rather than say that no state funeral has taken place since Yoshida’s,” argued a writer at the Asahi Shimbun in the paper’s daily column, “I think it is closer to the truth to say that after Yoshida, state funerals were considered defunct for good.” In 1975, Sato died, and his supporters sought to honor him with a state funeral. But the absence of a clear legal foundation led, instead, to a national funeral, funded by the state, the public, and the LDP.

Since then, a postwar status quo has emerged: The funerals of prime ministers are to be affairs jointly funded by the cabinet and the LDP. (In 1989, the nation honored Emperor Showa, or, as he is still referred to abroad, Emperor Hirohito, with taiso no rei, which the Imperial Household Agency calls a “State Ceremony,” and which differed from the ritual for Yoshida.) Yet current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has eschewed protocol. He has followed Sato’s playbook, organizing a state funeral for Abe through a cabinet decision.

To make the exception for Abe was at once unsurprising yet controversial. Abe, who was shot with a makeshift gun and killed on the street in July as he gave a stump speech, defined an era of politics. He was heir to a political dynasty—as the grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and son of Shintaro Abe, a former leading LDP politician and foreign minister—and the longest-serving prime minister in the postwar period. At the time of his death, he led the ruling party’s largest faction.

But roughly 60 percent of people in Japan still opposed the affair as recently as a week ago, either out of disdain for Abe’s right-wing policies or out of a belief that the funeral itself is an autocratic event. In recent months, a civic group requested an injunction against the use of state funds for the ceremony, and thousands of people have taken to the streets of Tokyo, protesting against what they see as a ceremony the public had no say in. “A state funeral must not be a funeral for democracy,” a crowd of reportedly 4,000 chanted at the foot of the Diet on Aug. 31. Critics see the ceremony as an attempt to force the masses to collectively mourn and remember an often unpopular figure, stifling criticism of his at times controversial policies. State funerals mark the “destruction of democracy,” wrote economics professor Masaru Kaneko, arguing that the use of taxpayer’s funds, amounting to roughly $12 million, for mourning is undemocratic, especially for a ceremony with ambiguous legal grounding. Yet Kishida and the LDP carried on, with the prime minister declaring that the funeral will “defend democracy.”


People protest Abe's state funeral in front of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.
People protest Abe's state funeral in front of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.

People protest Abe’s state funeral in front of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo on Sept. 26. Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

As officials descended on London last week for the state funeral of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, comparisons between the ceremonies—and between the figures—are inevitable. She was an adored monarch, seen by many (though not by all) as a neutral stalwart, at the symbolic helm of the nation for the entire existence of most living in the United Kingdom today. Abe, in contrast, a politician rather than monarch, first came to power in the early aughts, and he toed a line between international liberalism and right-wing nationalism. Though a controversial and divisive figure—notably, for his historical revisionism—he had a pull, a charm of sorts, over both those in his extended orbit and foreign diplomats, who, as S. Nathan Park wrote, “routinely glossed over” his nationalist tendencies. Perhaps the most apt comparison, however, is between the death of the queen and that of Emperor Hirohito, who held his post before, during, and after the war; with days of mourning and unity, his funeral, in 1989, did seem to mark a clear and notable historical break.

Abe’s death does not appear to have fractured national stability quite like the death of a monarch, whether the queen or the emperor. Yet Kaoru Iokibe, a professor of Japanese politics and diplomatic history at the University of Tokyo, wrote in Foresight soon after the shooting that it is a rule in Japanese politics that after the assassination of an influential conservative politician, “politics goes adrift.” Such politicians, like Abe, he argued, who balance “conservativism and progress,” help to hold and steer the ship of national politics, with their assassinations casting it all into confusion and disorder.

And so, as in 1967, the days are ripe with declarations of the end. With a state funeral, wrote Taniguchi Tomohiko, a professor at Keio University and former speechwriter for Abe, “Abe’s ‘Churchillian’ contribution to the nation thus will be etched in history.” Others less supportive of the ceremony still recognize its historical significance: “An era had come to an end, but people and cars kept moving about as if nothing had changed,” wrote an author at the Asahi Shimbun—whose editorial board has questioned the justification for the state funeral—a few days after the shooting, and one day after a smaller, more intimate funeral for Abe, held at a Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

Others looked globally. “My feeling has been growing that the era named Heisei that we lived in is rapidly becoming history,” wrote Shingo Usui in the Sankei Shimbun. The Heisei era technically already ended with Emperor Akihito’s abdication in 2019, but the transition was muted and subdued, though the calendar changed and a national holiday was prescribed. And Usui argues that now, three years later—after a global pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the assassination of Abe—change may be afoot. Abe’s funeral may mark the end of an era as surely as Yoshida’s did.

The meaning of the assassination shifted by the week and the day, and, at first, it changed by the hour. But one word stayed on the lips of many: democracy. On July 8, hours after the shooting, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi spoke to reporters. It was two days before the upper house elections, and Kishi, who is Abe’s younger brother, looked disheveled; his voice was quiet, his tempo slow and steady. He called the attack “an affront to democracy”; he then said the shooting was violent, an attempt to suppress free speech and fair elections, condemning it categorically. Kishida said much the same, declaring that Japan must protect its democracy in successive speeches; a poll published by the Yomiuri Shimbun on July 12 found that 73 percent of respondents saw the assassination as a threat to democracy.

And perhaps because the motives of the shooter were fuzzy at first, because the target was so significant and influential, and because comparisons to recent years seemed to fall so flat, commentators also searched for echoes in the annals of Japanese history, rife with political assassinations, as elsewhere. In both Japan and abroad, journalists and academics wrote pieces on the “history of political violence in Japan” and primers on assassinations in the country’s past. The national broadcaster NHK—often a barometer for national sentiments, albeit skewing conservative—aired a television special on the shooting of Abe, laden with historical photos and footage of assassinations past.

The prewar assassinations were substantive and epoch-making, and it was no surprise that commentators feared parallels after the shooting of Abe, however different the acts and moments may be. As Masayasu Hosaka, a scholar of the Showa era, later wrote in the literary magazine Bungei Shunju, at first, he had assumed the shooter was a far-left or far-right critic of Abe. And two days after the shooting, in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun, and speaking on that assumption, he had warned that assassinations in the prewar had been followed by a “chain of violence.” Hosaka reminded readers of Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi, who was shot at Tokyo Station in 1930, and the so-called May 15 Incident, in 1932, when young military officers—members of an ultranationalist group—launched a failed coup, killing the prime minister. Such stabbings or shootings of political figures are now seen as attacks on precarious prewar democracy, stepping stones on the road to war, and signs of fascism’s early encroach, as the eminent scholar Masao Maruyama noted in 1947.

Hosaka also looked to the postwar. He told the Asahi Shimbun that after 1945, the “chain of violence” had ended. “Assassination, in particular, is a tactic of political violence that has been used by the far right in Japan,” said Alex Finn Macartney, a historian and assistant professor of international affairs at George Washington University. There was the gruesome killing of Inejiro Asanuma, leader of the Japan Socialist Party, stabbed with a sword as he debated another candidate, and the attempted assassination of Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi. “For a long time in the postwar era, violence toward politicians did not occur in a chain and never evolved into war,” Hosaka told the paper. “To me, this is proof that democracy had been established.” As Hosaka said, “This time, we need to prove it once again.”

But is this a singular event? There is another way to see the shooting: as a symptom of decline, of collapse. As 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, the suspect, was one of several actors in recent violent attacks that at first glance appear disconnected and one-offs. Last month, Tomohiro Kato was executed at the age of 39 by the Japanese government—the first execution since December 2021—for a brutal killing in 2008, when he drove his car into a crowd in the Tokyo neighborhood of Akihabara and stabbed people on the street, killing seven and wounding 10. In 2019, Ryuichi Iwasaki, a 51-year-old unemployed man who lived with his family, was armed with a knife and approached children waiting at a bus stop, killing two people and himself and injuring more than a dozen others. That same year, Shinji Aoba, a 41-year-old, set an animation studio in Kyoto alight, killing 36.

Yamagami, Kato, Aoba, and Iwasaki are not politically nor ideologically aligned. Still, they are near-contemporaries, born from roughly the late 1960s to the early 1980s, coming of age at the height of the collapse after the asset bubble burst. “Employment ice age generation”—that’s what they called them, the dejected and forgotten, for whom the postwar promise of lifetime employment had shriveled away with the stock market prices. Later, in English, they were nicknamed the “Lost Generation.” Lost in what way? No jobs, no mobility, no hope.


Pedestrians are silhouetted against a large public video screen showing an image of Abe in the Akihabara district of Tokyo on July 8 after he was shot and killed in the city of Nara.
Pedestrians are silhouetted against a large public video screen showing an image of Abe in the Akihabara district of Tokyo on July 8 after he was shot and killed in the city of Nara.

Pedestrians are silhouetted against a large public video screen showing an image of Abe in the Akihabara district of Tokyo on July 8, after he was shot and killed in the city of Nara. TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

“I don’t know.”

Those were the words Yamagami put in his high school yearbook in the space meant to describe his future self. It was 1999, seven years after the bubble burst and a year when only 88.2 percent of high school graduates found jobs, an all-time low for Japan. After his father killed himself and his brother was diagnosed with cancer, Yamagami and his mother were sad and lost. She joined the Unification Church, donating so much money that Yamagami couldn’t attend college. His future was uncertain, made worse by economic stagnation.

“The lost decades have eroded Japan’s cherished notion of oneness and harmony,” wrote Sahoko Kaji, a professor of economics at Keio University, in 2015. It was the collapse of ideas forged in the postwar, the arrangement Yoshida had built. The salarymen fired from their jobs, still dressed in suits and reading newspapers on park benches, unwilling to tell their kin or neighbors that they were let go; the rising suicide rates in the late 1990s; netto-uyoku and chan culture; hikikomori—all perhaps symptoms of the collapse. “The whole architecture of Japanese society, constructed from the wreckage of a disastrous world war, is crumbling,” the U.S.-based writer Ian Buruma wrote in 2009.

And Yamagami was caught in the crumble as his grudge against the Unification Church festered and grew. He believed the group had ruined his life, which was presumably made worse by economic stagnation. And so, he told investigators, he planned to kill Hak Ja Han Moon—the Unification Church’s current leader and wife of its late founder, Sun Myung Moon—but it was impossible because of coronavirus-era travel restrictions. But after he saw clips of Abe, who reportedly has loose ties to the group, speaking at an event for the organization, his target shifted to the statesman, who he killed in Nara on July 8.

Yamagami is a product of the postwar collapse and decline. But Abe’s death, in itself, may also serve as a catalyst for change, furthering the undoing of the system first etched in the years after defeat. His death could mark the end of decadeslong conservative rule: The historian Andrew Levidis argues that “the question posed by Abe’s murder is whether we have reached the end of the period of conservative politics defined by Nobusuke Kishi.” The conservative hegemony and one-party rule—a tradition succeeded by Abe—may now be thrown into confusion and uncertainty after his assassination, though for now, this looks unlikely.

The shooting has also shone a bright light on the ties between LDP officials and the Unification Church, another relic of the postwar order that may now come undone. There is also a renewed interest in security that followed the assassination—how could a man build a gun, many asked?—that comes on the heels of the war in Ukraine, which had already kick-started a conversation on defense and security, as the political scientist Takako Hikotani wrote in Foreign Affairs. It’s too early to know, but Abe’s shooting also could help dismantle even the postwar order of pacifism.

Will Abe’s funeral, then, be the final breath of the postwar period? “We have to wait and see but the funeral could be an end of the postwar era that Yoshida’s funeral could not really end,” Iokibe, the University of Tokyo professor, said cautiously, tentatively, in an email exchange in the days that followed the shooting. The funeral could be an end, some end—of the postwar, of the Cold War, though we do not yet know the end of what. When Abe first took power in 2006, he uttered a phrase that summed up his policy and purpose, his ideology and beliefs, his drive, and his intentions: “overcoming the postwar regime.” Abe failed to do so in life, but in death, he may succeed.

Spencer Cohen is a journalist in New York, previously based in Tokyo. He is on staff at The Asahi Shimbun, reporting for from its New York bureau. The article is his own work and not associated with The Asahi Shimbun.

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