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Controversy erupts over former Japanese prime minister’s funeral

(TOKYO) — Thousands of people are expected to gather at Tokyo’s famed Budokan arena on Tuesday to pay their respects to slain former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japan’s government says 3,600 people from Japan and about 700 from overseas will come to the state funeral, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.

But the mood is distinctly dour in the capital, as the citizens of Japan wrestle with the unsettled legacy of the murdered leader and his controversial send-off using taxpayer funds.

The plan has set off a firestorm of debate and protests. The government says the event will cost $12 million, but many suspect the final tab will be much higher.

In the country’s post-World War II history, only one other prime minister was granted the honor of a funeral financed with state coffers. Police from outside prefectures have also been brought to Tokyo to bolster security.

Current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has defended his administration’s decision on a state funeral, saying that it will not only commemorate Abe’s legacy but also show that Japan can “resolutely defend democracy without yielding to violence.”

Detractors say Kishida’s decision to hold the state funeral is in itself undemocratic and that this event is a thinly veiled attempt by Japan’s ruling party to whitewash the legacy of one of the nation’s more divisive leaders.

Though Abe was Japan’s longest-serving leader in Japan’s modern history, he was not the most popular.

His years in office were plagued by scandals and he left behind many unfulfilled political goals, including the unsuccessful push to “normalize” the nation by revising its pacifist constitution.

Polls show roughly six in 10 Japanese people oppose his state-funded funeral. Hundreds of thousands have signed petitions calling for the event to be halted. Detractors argue that the state-funded event will essentially force all citizens of Japan to express sadness for the departed leader. The government, however, assures the public that “every citizen will not be required to engage in mourning.”

On Sunday night, hundreds gathered near Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku station with placards and loudspeakers to demonstrate against the state funeral.

“In these tough times, there is no need for taxpayer money to finance this. Most of us are having a tough enough supporting our families as it is,” declared 35-year-old Yosuke Takagi, a sanitation worker living in Tokyo.

Sanae, a woman in her sixties who declined to give her last name, looked on while brandishing a small sign that read, “No State Funeral.”

“Abe didn’t move Japan forward at all while he was in power and the scandals surrounding him are numerous,” she said.

Shinzo Abe’s brazen murder in July exposed long-suspected links between many of Japan’s top government leaders and the Unification Church, now known as Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

Critics claim the group is a cult known for “spiritual sales” of trinkets at exorbitant prices and soliciting large monetary donations. According to police, Abe’s accused assassin said the church sent his family into poverty and blamed Abe for supporting the church. As details of church and government ties emerge, support for the state funeral wane and clouds of doubt over Abe’s legacy grow.

Some academics believe that a state funeral for Abe cast a favorable light on the leader, preventing proper evaluation of his legacy. Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, told ABC News that Abe’s supporters will have a tough time ensuring that history looks upon him favorably.

“Prime Minister Kishida probably hoped that the tangled web can be covered up with the hosting of the state funeral and the deification of Abe, but that is not happening.” Nakano said. “The fact that Abe was the linchpin of the tight relations between his party and the Unification Church is now public knowledge, so at least domestically, a lot of people will remember Abe as much less than a faultless hero that turned Japan around.”

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party had since admitted that 179 out of 379 members it surveyed were found to have interacted with the Unification Church. Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency has assembled of a panel to investigate dubious marketing practices alleged to be conducted by the church.

Naomichi, who works in office management in central Tokyo told ABC News, “Perhaps Abe’s greatest accomplishment was exposing the connection between the Unification Church and Japan’s politicians. That will be his legacy.”

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