U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands before the Japan-U.S. bilateral meeting at the Akasaka Palace state guest house in Tokyo on Sept. 26. (David Mareuil/Pool Photo via AP)

By MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held a series of meetings with foreign dignitaries Monday in what he’s called “funeral diplomacy” the day before he hosts a controversial state-sponsored ceremony for former leader Shinzo Abe.

Kishida has been criticized for pushing for Tuesday’s formal state funeral for Abe, who was assassinated in July, amid questions over their governing party’s close ties with the Unification Church, accused of brainwashing its adherents, and doubts over the legitimacy of a state event with links to pre-World War II imperial Japan.

Kishida says the honor is fitting for the longest-serving leader in Japan’s modern political history. He has also said it will allow him to meet personally with visiting foreign leaders and forge stronger ties at a time where Japan faces a host of urgent issues in northeast Asia and the world, from Chinese and North Korean military threats to worries over regional economic and security matters.

In a rush of planned meetings, Kishida was to hold talks with about 40 foreign dignitaries over the next few days at the Akasaka state guest house in Tokyo.

Kishida met on Monday with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippine Vice President Sara Duterte and about 10 other foreign dignitaries.

Kishida told Harris that Abe “poured his heart and soul” into strengthening ties between their two countries.

“I feel it is my duty to carry on his aspirations,” Kishida said.

Harris said that “the alliance between Japan and the United States is a cornerstone of what we believe is integral to peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”

On Tuesday, Kishida was to hold talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

China, a sometimes harsh critic of what it saw as the conservative Abe’s moves to expand Japan’s military and whitewash history, will send former Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang, whose title is sufficiently politically neutral as to raise few eyebrows. He is also the head of the China Zhiong Party, one of eight figurehead bodies tasked with advising the ruling Communist Party and giving China the veneer of a multiparty system.

Wan is also a ranking member of the legislature’s toothless advisory body, with a specialty in the auto industry. Wan is not known to have had any connections to Japan, Japan’s parliament or the Abe family.

Other leaders from Group of Seven countries and many others who attended Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in London last week won’t be at Abe’s funeral. South Korea is sending Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, who is to meet with Kishida on Wednesday.

Political watchers say holding a state funeral for Abe is an attempt by Kishida to stabilize his grip on power by placating governing Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers belonging to Abe’s conservative political faction.

Security around the Budokan martial arts arena, where the memorial will be held Tuesday, has been raised to high levels, with uniformed police officers patrolling the neighborhood with police dogs and stopping cars for inspections. They also poked inside manholes, and a group of police officers dived into a nearby moat for safety checks.

Travel on roads around the Budokan and the Akasaka guest house will be restricted through Wednesday, including about 10 hours on Tuesday, according to Tokyo police.

Police security has come under scrutiny after the police force was accused of not providing adequate protection for Abe when he was killed. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters Monday that police have stepped up information gathering, analysis and protection measures ahead of the funeral.

“We will do our utmost for security and take all necessary steps so we can respond to any situation,” Matsuno said.

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