Photo/Illutration Sadao Hirano, a former member of the Upper House, during an interview with The Asahi Shimbun in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, in July (Tetsuro Takehana)

When former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato died in 1975, ruling party politicians pushed to hold a state funeral for the Nobel Peace Prize winner and then Japan’s longest-serving postwar prime minister.

But the government decided against the state funeral because there was no legal basis to justify holding such an event, Sadao Hirano, a former lawmaker familiar with the matter, told The Asahi Shimbun.

According to Hirano, Ichiro Yoshikuni, chief of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, the watchdog of laws, warned Takeo Miki, the prime minister at the time, not to hold the state funeral for Sato.

Yoshikuni explained to Miki that Japan has no legal provisions to justify holding a state funeral and that performing one would require approval from the legislative, administrative and judicial branches of government, Hirano said.

As a result, the Miki administration abandoned the idea for Sato’s state funeral.

Before World War II, state funerals were conducted for former prime ministers based on a legal decree.

But the decree became null and void in 1947, when the postwar Constitution went into force.

The absence of the decree and thus the legal basis is now being cited by those opposed to the government’s plan to hold a fully taxpayer-funded state funeral for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sept. 27.

Hirano’s account also seems to further undermine Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s legal justification for holding the state funeral for Abe.

In 1975, Hirano, a staff member of the Lower House’s secretariat, served as an aide to Shigesaburo Maeo, an LDP bigwig who was speaker of the Diet chamber.

Maeo was widely known to have put great trust in Hirano, who later became a member of the Upper House.

When Sato died on June 3 that year, news media reported the government and the LDP debated funeral plans for about an hour and a half. They decided that Sato’s funeral would be jointly hosted by the government, the LDP and willing members of the public.

According to Hirano, Miki visited Maeo’s office to convey the decision about Sato’s funeral. But Maeo was absent at the time.

Prime Minister Miki instructed Hirano to inform the Lower House speaker that the administration “does not intend to have a state funeral” for Sato, according to Hirano.

Some LDP lawmakers were pushing for a state funeral, citing Sato’s distinguished record.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for proposing Japan’s three nonnuclear principles. He also served as Japan’s prime minister for a then postwar record of seven years and eight months.

On the Miki administration’s decision not to hold the state funeral, the Asahi reported that the determining factor was the Cabinet Legislation Bureau chief’s position that legal grounds (for justifying a state funeral) were unclear.

Opposition parties back then were against holding a state funeral for Sato. They are now intensifying their criticism about Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for Abe.

When opposition parties questioned government officials in August about the legal basis for Abe’s funeral, they replied that “no records have been found” concerning the Cabinet Legislation Bureau’s position in Sato’s case.

Kishida decided to hold a state funeral for Abe six days after he was gunned down in Nara on July 8. The Cabinet approved the plan later in that month.

Abe broke Sato’s longevity record as prime minister, but Abe’s policies divided the country and questions remain over his track record.

Kishida insisted that the government can hold the state funeral as “state ceremony” under the law for the establishment of the Cabinet Office, which was enacted only in 1999.

This law has been applied exclusively to state events involving the emperor, not funerals for politicians.

Kenji Eda, a Lower House member of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, pointed out that the purpose of the law is to task the Cabinet Office to do the necessary administrative work for a state ceremony, but not to decide on whether to hold it.

Kishida has also done little to gain support for the state funeral in the Diet.

“Kishida decided on his own, skipping debate in the Diet,” an official close to the CDP said. “He is ignoring the separation of the three branches of government.”

Yohei Mori, a professor of historical sociology at Seijo University who is well versed in the history of state funerals, also questioned the legitimacy of Kishida’s decision.

“If the Cabinet alone can decide who should receive a state funeral, the party in power would be able to decide as it pleases, allowing state funerals to become a matter of partisanship,” he said.

Kishida tried to explain in more detail the reasoning behind Abe’s state funeral at a special meeting with opposition lawmakers on Sept. 8.

But Mori blasted the move, saying, “It is just an explanation added later.”

(This article was written by Tsubasa Yokoyama, Ryutaro Abe and Haruna Shiromi.)