National / Politics

Abe nips Tokyo cherry-blossom party in the bud as critics cry cronyism

Kyodo

The government will not hold a publicly funded cherry blossom-viewing event next year, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday, after criticism that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has used it to entertain his supporters.

Suga emphasized that the decision had been made by Abe himself.

The opposition bloc has taken issue with Abe over the annual event, held every April at a Tokyo park since 1952 to honor people for their accomplishments. Under his administration, the number of guests and the amount of money spent by the government on the gathering have risen.

During a meeting in Tokyo earlier in the day, Toshihiro Nikai and Tetsuo Saito — the secretaries-general of the Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner Komeito — shared the view that a review of the criteria for guests attending the event was necessary.

The agreement came a day after Suga suggested the government would consider looking into the matter, as opposition parties criticized what they saw as a murky selection process.

Abe has denied he was involved in selecting who attends, saying that the government — specifically the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretariat — decides on a list of people to be invited based on recommendations from each ministry and agency.

Although opposition members have called for the release of past guest lists, the Cabinet Office has said they have been discarded as it did not consider their retention necessary.

Still, the education ministry revealed Wednesday that the lists of recommended guests it compiled and submitted between 2017 and 2019 have been kept, in line with the ministry’s own rules.

Education minister Koichi Hagiuda told a parliamentary session that some of his supporters did participate in the cherry blossom-viewing event.

When pressed by an opposition lawmaker in a parliamentary session to disclose the ministry’s lists, Hagiuda said, “We cannot disclose them because they are only recommendations and include a lot of personal information.”

Another member of Abe’s Cabinet, health minister Katsunobu Kato, also admitted in a separate parliamentary session that some supporters from his constituency had attended the event. But he denied that his office was involved in drawing up an invitation list.

The major opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and three other parties are set to grill Abe over the annual gathering in Diet.

The government sets a rough target of 10,000 for the number of people invited to the seasonal event at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo.

This year about 18,000 people took part, with the government spending about ¥55 million ($504,000) — up from about ¥30 million in 2014.

The controversy arose after Japanese Communist Party lawmaker Tomoko Tamura told the Diet recently that the cherry blossom-viewing party was part of a big event for Abe’s supporters, and questioned the use of taxpayer money as a possible election violation.

Abe’s office at his constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture has solicited supporters who wished to participate in the annual cherry blossom-viewing event as part of a package tour to Tokyo, according to supporters.