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How ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's funeral may impact Japan's current administration

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Japan held a rare state funeral today for ex-prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated in July. The event aroused strong passions among both Abe's supporters and opponents on the streets of Tokyo. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Japan's capital, the funeral could have an impact on the country's current administration as it grapples with a raft of political and economic challenges.

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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Dressed in a black kimono, Shinzo Abe's widow, Akie, carried her husband's ashes into Tokyo's Nippon Budokan Hall. They were placed on an altar in front of some 4,300 mourners. Among them, Vice President Kamala Harris, who led the U.S. delegation. Japan's current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, and other politicians delivered eulogies to Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: Outside the hall, an estimated 23,000 people waited in long lines to lay flowers. Some 20,000 police were mobilized to provide the kind of security that might have prevented Abe from being shot to death while campaigning in the summer. One of those paying their respects was Hideki Yuasa, who traveled from the city of Osaka. He suggested that Abe's spirit might protect Japan.

HIDEKI YUASA: (Through interpreter) I wanted to say to him, thank you for your long time service and please look after us in the future as well.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Shouting in Japanese).

KUHN: But thousands of protesters outside the Budokan Hall and the parliament voiced their opposition to the state funeral. Some of them clashed with police and Abe supporters. Aki Yukawa spoke as police surrounded her group of demonstrator.

AKI YUKAWA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Polls show 60% of Japanese oppose the state funeral," she says. "I came to make that number visible." The poll she cites shows opponents of the state funeral outnumber supporters roughly 2 to 1. Opponents don't like taxpayers having to spend $11.5 million on the event, and they accuse the government of trying to use the funeral to whitewash Abe's legacy. Part of that legacy is his ties to the Unification Church, which has been sued in Japan for defrauding its followers. Abe's alleged assassin says he targeted the former prime minister because of those connections. Veteran journalist Hiroshi Izumi says that while Abe was alive, he could keep a lid on the potential scandal, but his killing changed that.

HIROSHI IZUMI: (Through interpreter) His death was a very sad thing and a huge loss for Japan. But it has opened a Pandora's box.

KUHN: Japanese media have revealed that nearly half of all ruling party lawmakers have had ties to the church. Surveys shows most Japanese aren't buying Prime Minister Kishida's assurances that he's dealing with the problem, and his approval ratings have plummeted. On the other hand, Izumi notes that Kishida doesn't have to face voters until elections in 2025, and he no longer has to defer to Abe, who remained a powerful faction boss even after stepping down in 2020.

IZUMI: (Through interpreter) The Abe faction will be dispersed the moment the state funeral is over. Abe supporters will lose power.

KUHN: And that, Izumi predicts, could free Kishida to finally walk out of Abe's long shadow and tackle Japan's challenges in his own way. How he deals with those challenges, he adds, may determine whether he survives politically. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.