Within a week of Shinzo Abe’s assassination in July, Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida announced that a state funeral would be held for the nation’s longest-serving elected leader. It was a decision, made without any public debate, that showed Kishida in command of the political scene.
But while world leaders will gather to mourn Abe next Tuesday at Tokyo’s Budokan arena, analysts said Kishida’s now-deeply unpopular commitment to the ¥1.6bn ($11mn) funeral could prove disastrous for a prime minister whose approval ratings have fallen to dangerously low levels.
Kishida’s woes have kindled concerns that his time as leader could be limited and that Japan could return to an unstable period of revolving-door prime ministers. Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, stepped down after just a year. Before Abe’s record-breaking 2012-to-2020 stint, Japan had 17 changes of prime minister since 1989.
It is a remarkable reversal in fortune for Kishida, who was elected prime minister in October last year. Defying initially low expectations, he has steered the ruling Liberal Democratic party to two election wins, surprised allies with a tough response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and signalled a big shift in Japan’s long-paralysed energy policy.
Public approval for Kishida’s administration hit a peak of nearly 70 per cent in May. But recent polls by Japanese media suggest it has since collapsed to about 40 per cent.
Takao Toshikawa, editor-in-chief of the political newsletter Insideline, said there was no obvious rival or political faction within the LDP that could topple Kishida, but his government was “in a very tough situation”, with no immediate prospect of a recovery in the prime minister’s popularity.
“He has been extremely fortunate from the administration’s launch, but it seems like luck is running out,” Toshikawa said.
Analysts said the political tide turned quickly after Abe’s death, which prompted intense public scrutiny of close ties between the LDP and South Korea’s Unification Church.
Abe and his family had a longstanding association with the church, which is known formally as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification and commonly as the “Moonies”. The suspect in the former prime minister’s killing has said he was seeking revenge for the financial ruin that his mother allegedly suffered because of her involvement with the religious group.
During an investigation by the LDP, nearly half of the party’s 379 parliamentarians revealed some connection with the Moonies.
The uproar over the LDP’s relationship with the church has fuelled anger at the decision to hold a state funeral for Abe, which polls show a majority of Japanese oppose. Thousands of people have joined demonstrations against the funeral, while a man in his 70s set himself on fire near the prime minister’s office on Wednesday in what was reportedly an act of protest against it.
Critics have questioned the legal basis for a state funeral and have complained about the lack of debate before the decision to hold an event that will be funded with taxpayers’ money. Japan has not held a state funeral since 1967 for former prime minister Shigeru Yoshida, one of the country’s most important postwar leaders.
“After the elections were over, Kishida tried to portray himself as a decisive leader and it was a big decision he made to hold Abe’s state funeral,” said Masatoshi Honda, a political analyst and academic. “But it has completely backfired.”
One western diplomat said Kishida had miscalculated the public response to both the LDP’s links with the Moonies and the funeral, even though his instincts about the popular mood had proved correct on other significant issues such as the war in Ukraine.
Kishida has argued that the funeral will provide a diplomatic opportunity to engage with leaders from countries and regions including India, Vietnam, Australia and the EU.
While US president Joe Biden will not attend Abe’s funeral, Kamala Harris, the vice-president, will take part and is expected to hold a meeting with Japan’s largest chipmakers the next day to discuss economic security issues, according to two people with knowledge of the plan.
Analysts said the funeral would allow Kishida to meet at least briefly with a variety of global dignitaries, but that the prime minister had not made clear a specific foreign policy agenda.
Nor has Kishida followed through on plans announced last month to accelerate the restart of nuclear reactors shut down after the 2011 Fukushima crisis. He also faces increasing pressure to respond to public concern about the rising cost of living.
Honda, the academic, said part of the explanation for Kishida’s falling public support could be the lack of passion with which the prime minister delivers speeches or news conferences. “He hasn’t actually responded to the big question of what he actually wants to do as prime minister,” Honda said.