A state-funded memorial service for former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who died at the age of 101 in November last year, was held on Saturday, with some universities flying Japanese flags following a controversial government request to do so.
The event, arranged by the central government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, came amid criticism by academics and the opposition camp over whether it was appropriate for the government to ask national universities and other official institutions to fly flags at half-mast and observe a moment of silence for the late leader.
The memorial service, held at a Tokyo hotel, also drew criticism from opposition lawmakers over the hefty cost of the event.
After observing a moment of silence, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga spoke about Nakasone’s accomplishments in an address at the service, describing the prime minister, who served from 1982 to 1987, as having “executed the necessary reforms and contributed to international peace and prosperity.”
On the domestic front, Nakasone led efforts to privatize the state-owned Japanese National Railways and Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Public Corp. and pushed for administrative and fiscal reform in favor of a smaller government.
Nakasone “significantly raised the international profile of our country,” Suga said in an address, referring to a time when Japan was experiencing trade friction with the United States.
Nakasone was also known for his close relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, with whom he built a robust bilateral alliance.
Universities flying their flags drew mixed reactions from students and teachers.
A flag was flown at Osaka University in the city of Suita and at the Nara University of Education in the city of Nara, while a flag was flown at half-mast at Hokkaido University in Sapporo.
A 19-year-old male student at Osaka University criticized the move to send a written request to universities, saying “universities should be left to think for themselves” on whether they want to join in mourning.
At Kyushu University in Fukuoka, where a flag was flown at half-mast, a 20-year-old student said he feels “a bit uncomfortable” with the government’s request.
In Okinawa Prefecture, the University of the Ryukyus told Kyodo News that it had no plans to heed such a request.
Hiroto Tokuda, a professor of administrative law, said the act itself of “sending a notice asking (us) to express sympathy is virtually coercion,” and criticized the government for interfering with “academic freedom.”
A faculty member at Gunma University in Nakasone’s home prefecture, where a flag was at half-mast, said he does not see any problem with it as the request was “not compulsory.”
A flag was also flown at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. An 18-year-old female student said, “I don’t think there is any problem since a national university receives a budget (from the government).”
The government has allocated about ¥96 million from the reserve fund in the fiscal 2020 national budget for the cost of the memorial service. The state and the ruling LDP evenly split the cost, which totals nearly ¥200 million.
The memorial service, which was slated for March but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, was attended by about 640 people including lawmakers, Crown Prince Akishino and other imperial family members, among the roughly 1,400 invitees.
School officials have said the request was made by education minister Koichi Hagiuda on behalf of the central government in a letter dated Tuesday.
The letter was sent to the heads of national universities and independent agencies under their jurisdiction, as well as educational associations. The request was that they do what they thought best in accordance with the contents of the letter.