The man, who has not been named, was initially unconscious and sustained burns over his entire body after the incident in Tokyo on Wednesday morning, less than a week before the controversial send-off for Abe, who was shot dead in July.
Opposition to the 27 September state funeral has grown since Abe’s death triggered revelations about the governing Liberal Democratic party’s ties to the Unification church, whose members are colloquially known as Moonies.
Media reports said the protester, who is in his 70s, regained consciousness and told police that he had doused himself in oil before setting it alight. A note in which he said he “strongly opposed” the funeral was found near the scene.
Kyodo news agency and other outlets said police were called to the scene around 7am after reports that someone was “engulfed in flames”. Media reports said a police officer who extinguished the flames was also injured.
Tetsuya Yamagami, who is suspected of shooting Abe dead on 8 July with a homemade gun, has reportedly told investigators he had targeted the politician because of his ties to the Unification church.
Yamagami said his family had been plunged into poverty 20 years ago when his mother, a church member, donated large sums of money to the organisation.
Abe was not a member of the church, but sent a congratulatory video message to an affiliate’s event last year. A recent survey by the ruling party of its 379 lawmakers found that nearly half had had some form of interaction with the Unification church.
The church, founded in South Korea in 1954 by the self-proclaimed messiah Sun Myung Moon, was encouraged to establish a presence in Japan by Abe’s grandfather and postwar prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi, as a counter to communism and trade unionism. The organisation, known for its mass weddings, has been accused of pressuring believers into making donations they can’t afford – claims it has denied.
Revelations of ties between Liberal Democratic party (LDP) lawmakers and the church have dominated the domestic news agenda for weeks and hardened opposition to the use of taxpayer money to pay for Abe’s funeral.
The scandal has also damaged the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, who announced his support for a state funeral within days of Abe’s death. A Mainichi Shimbun poll conducted at the weekend showed support for Kishida at 29%, down six percentage points from late August.
Earlier this month the government said the service at the Nippon Budokan hall in Tokyo would cost at least ¥1.7bn ($12m), with most of the money going on a huge security operation. A Kyodo news agency poll released on Sunday found that 60.8% opposed the ceremony, with 38.5% expressing support. More than 75% said the government was spending “too much” on the funeral.
Overseas guests are expected to include the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, and the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese. In all, about 6,000 people are expected to attend.
But many current and former leaders will not be in attendance, including Barack Obama, who in 2016 was accompanied by Abe when he became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima.
The man who set himself alight on Wednesday is not the first to use self-immolation in a protest connected to Abe, a conservative whose legacy has inspired both warm tributes and fierce criticism.
In 2014, two men set themselves on fire in separate incidents to protest against the planned introduction of security laws that critics said marked a reckless departure from Japan’s postwar pacifism. One of the men died.
Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, resigned in 2020 citing poor health, but remained influential until he was shot dead while making an election campaign speech in the western city of Nara.