With flowers, prayers and a 19-gun salute, Japan honored slain former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday at the first state funeral for a former premier in 55 years.
The ceremony started at 2:00 p.m. (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 honor-guard salute, which echoed inside the hall.
Thousands of mourners flooded to designated spots near the venue from early morning to pay their last respects.
Within hours, about 10,000 people had laid flowers, television showed, with more waiting in three-hour long queues.
“I know it’s divisive and there are a lot of people against this, but there were so many people lined up to offer flowers,” said Yoshiko Kojima, a 63-year-old Tokyo housewife.
“I felt that now the funeral is actually taking place, many people have come out to pray for him.”
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. In the center was a Japanese flag made of flowers.
Nearby, a wall of photos showed Abestrolling with G7 leaders, holding hands with children and visiting disaster areas.
A moment of silence was followed by a retrospective of Abe’s political life and speeches by leading ruling party figures, including Kishida and Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s successor and Kishida’s predecessor as prime minister.
In remarks representing Abe’s friends, Suga noted that many people in their 20s and 30s had showed up to offer flowers.
“You always said you wanted to make Japan better, that you wanted young people to have hope and pride,” Suga said, his voice trembling.
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 defense posture that many now see as prescient amid growing concern about China, but others criticized as too hawkish.
About 4,300 people were expected at the funeral ceremony itself along with at least 48 current or former government figures, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Some 20,000 police were deployed, nearby roads were closed and even some schools shut as Japan sought to avoid the security blunders that led to Abe’s shooting with a homemade gun by a suspect who, police say, accused the Unification Church of impoverishing his family.
The state funeral for Abe, who received a private funeral days after his assassination, was the first for an ex-premier since one in 1967 for former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida.
Kishida has explained the decision as a way of honoring Abe’s achievements, as well as standing up for democracy, but ordinary Japanese remain divided. Only 30% of respondents in a recent poll by TV Asahi agreed with hosting the funeral, against 54% opposed.
Kishida also cited the chance to conduct diplomacy as a reason for the funeral and spent Monday night and Tuesday morning in meetings with leaders.
Even without the recent revelations about the Unification Church, it would be hard to imagine any circumstances where a majority of Japanese would favor honoring Abe with a state funeral, said Tobias Harris, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of a biography of the former premier.
“He was someone who almost welcomed and invited controversy and saw his mission as overturning a longstanding consensus or set of consensuses” about how Japan was run, Harris said.
Many Japanese were “attached to the postwar regime that he wanted to overturn,” Harris said.
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