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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Catchword kokusō

2022年9月28日, by Torsten Weber

Abe Shinzo was Prime Minister of Japan for a total of 3188 days – longer than anyone before him. When he was shot dead in Nara on 8 July 2022, the shock ran deep in Japan and around the world. Only a week after Abe’s death, however, the state funeral (kokusō 国葬) for Abe, announced by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, sparked a fierce controversy that continues to this day.

That a long-serving politician of the highest rank should be honoured with a state funeral after his death does not seem unusual. In Japan, however, it is: since the end of the Second World War, only Yoshida Shigeru (prime minister 1946-47, 1948-54) had been accorded this honour in the year 1967. The criticism was therefore not entirely unexpected when Prime Minister Kishida announced on 14 July – only six days after Abe’s assassination – that a state funeral would be organised for Abe. The fact that the government did not want to discuss this plan in parliament, but instead bypassed the people’s representatives, is only one of many points of criticism. During the ongoing investigation of Abe’s assassination, ever deeper involvement of members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in potentially illegal activities of the Unification Church became known. Almost half of the LDP members of parliament had contacts to or actively supported the church, and many of them had received campaign aid in return. The fact that the religious group did not shy away from intimidation in dealing with its members did not seem to bother the politicians in their quest for power. Abe’s assassin, for example, had claimed to have lost everything because of his mother’s involvement with the church. Many other victims of the Unification Church subsequently confirmed that the group was pressuring its members to hand over large amounts of money to it.

Abe’s controversial legacy

But it is not only the support of this organisation that Abe is accused of: as Prime Minister from 2006-2007 and 2012-2020 (and also before, in between, and after), he had restricted the freedom of the media, promoted distorting views of history, strained relations with China and Korea, and was involved in numerous political and financial scandals. You can read about a selection of Abe’s controversial policies in the open access publication (in German) Japan in der Ära Abe. Eine politikwissenschaftliche Analyse [Japan in the Abe Era. A political science analysis], published in 2017 in the DIJ Monographs series and edited by DIJ alumni Steffen Heinrich and Gabriele Vogt. Finally, an issue of contention is the immense cost of the state funeral in times of economic hardship: it will cost Japanese taxpayers at least 1.65 billion yen (about 12 million Euros), plus an estimated further 63 million yen (about 460.000 euros) for the prefectural funeral (kenminsō) – half of which will be paid by Abe’s LDP – planned for 15 October in Abe’s native Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Opposition to Abe’s state funeral

The extent of opposition to Abe’s state funeral is not only visible in opinion polls. The pro-government TV station NHK published a poll in mid-September according to which 57% rejected a state funeral for Abe and 72% said that the government had not sufficiently explained its necessity. On 21 September, a 70-year-old man set himself on fire near the government building in Tokyo in protest of the state funeral. He survived and with him anti-kokusō messages he was carrying. Nakano Koichi, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Sophia University, summarised the criticism in an English-language video that has over 70.000 views on You Tube and Twitter. He argues that state funerals are no longer in keeping with the times, that the decision is not democratically legitimate without discussion in parliament, that the majority of the population is against the state funeral, and that Abe’s scandals and political legacy do not justify this honour.

Even more popular is the satirical protest of comedian Emori Kosuke from Okinawa who explains his opposition to the state funeral in a video shot at a local beach. Emori makes fun of Kishida’s reasoning of the state funeral as necessary “to protect democracy”. How does that fit in with the fact that the decision was made by a cabinet decision bypassing parliament and against the majority of the people, yet financed by taxpayers’ money, Emori asks ironically. His video has been viewed more than 1.5 million times on Twitter alone.  

In opinion polls, Kishida has steadily slipped after he announced the decision to hold a state funeral for Abe. In September, according to an Asahi Shinbun poll, his approval rating (41%) fell below the disapproval rating (47%) for the first time since he took office in October 2021. Given these figures, we could venture to say that it is unlikely that Kishida will stay in office for anywhere near as long as his pre-predecessor Abe.