Some 6,000 mourners, including dignitaries from more than 100 countries, paid their final respects Thursday to the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi at an official funeral at Nippon Budokan hall in central Tokyo.
In his eulogy, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori praised his predecessor for his devotion to the people of Japan.
“No one was more concerned than (Obuchi) with the present and future condition of our nation as we approached the tumultuous turn of the century,” Mori said. “It was he who staked his very life on steering this nation, caught in a vortex of tribulations, to safety.”
Obuchi passed away on May 14, six weeks after lapsing into a coma following a stroke while still in office on April 1. He was 62.
“I am anguished to think how deeply disappointed Mr. Obuchi must have been to have had to exit the arena of action, felled by an unforeseen illness,” Mori said, adding that the former prime minister was unable to witness the main fruits of his endeavors — Japan’s hosting of the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa in July and the nation’s expected return to positive economic growth.
U.S. President Bill Clinton, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, Philippine President Joseph Estrada and Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai were among the foreign guests from about 180 countries, regions and international organizations who attended the funeral.
The ceremony, jointly organized by the Cabinet and the Liberal Democratic Party, began at 2 p.m. with the arrival of Obuchi’s family, including his son Go, who carried the urn with his father’s ashes.
The ashes were placed atop the altar, covered with chrysanthemums and carnations. The giant altar was shaped to symbolize “Bridges toward the 21st century,” one of Obuchi’s favorite phrases, and “the sea and sand of Okinawa.”
Japanese participants included the Crown Prince and Crown Princess, along with former prime ministers, heads of the ruling and opposition parties, business leaders, academics and artists.
The Metropolitan Police Department dispatched some 10,000 officers — nearly a quarter of its entire force — to patrol the hall and nearby facilities.
Police dogs were on hand to detect suspicious substances, while manholes and sewer entrances were sealed shut to prevent security breaches.
Traffic restrictions were also in place for large areas of central Tokyo.
Mori reflected on how Obuchi, born in 1937, the second son in a family of thread manufacturers in the town of Nakajyo, Gunma Prefecture, was prompted to enter politics by the death of his father, a Lower House member. The prime minister said he believed that a February 1962 meeting with then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, during which the latter explained the political ideals of his brother, the late President John F. Kennedy, had a huge impact on the young Obuchi.
Former House of Representatives Speaker Soichiro Ito, House of Councilors President Juro Saito and Supreme Court Chief Justice Shigeru Yamaguchi also paid tribute.
Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, chairman of Seibu Railway Co., gave a speech as a representative of Obuchi’s personal acquaintances. Following a brief performance by pianist Hiroko Nakamura, a close friend of Obuchi, a group of mourners offered flowers for the late prime minister.
Obuchi is survived by his wife, Chizuko, son Go and two daughters. His younger daughter, Yuko, 26, has declared her intention to run in the June 25 House of Representatives election for Obuchi’s seat in Gunma Prefecture.
Obuchi was first elected to the Lower House in 1963 at the age of 26, succeeding his late father, Mitsuhei. He was re-elected 11 consecutive times.
Members of the public began lining up outside the hall Thursday morning as preparations for the afternoon event were still continuing, to await their opportunity to pay their respects.
Sumi Ohashi, 64, who was third in line, said she was shocked and sad that Obuchi had passed away.
Ohashi brought with her a picture of Obuchi, her husband and herself taken during a trip to Kyushu about three years ago when they bumped into Obuchi, before he became prime minister.
“Mr. Obuchi was really friendly when we asked him to pose for a picture,” she said. “It’s really sad that he has passed away.”
Ohashi, from Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, said she had believed Obuchi would recover from his stroke as she herself suffered a similar ailment that paralyzed one side of her body a few years ago, but subsequently recovered.
Officials said about 1,800 members of the public also came to pay their respects at the funeral, which cost 75 million yen.