The government has canceled next year’s annual cherry blossom-viewing event, organized by the prime minister with taxpayer money, following criticism that Shinzo Abe has used the event to entertain supporters from his home district. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government will seek to clarify the standards for who gets invited to the event and make the process more transparent. Cancellation of the event for next April effectively amounts to admitting that there were problems in the way it has been organized.
Media reports indicate that the government plans to substantially cut the number of invitees and the amount of funding for the party — both of which have been rising sharply in recent years — while officials deny that the gala, held each spring since 1952, will be terminated. But the question is not the number of attendees or the size of the budget, but whether the viewing party is organized in ways that serve its intended purpose. If the government is reviewing how the gala is organized, it should look into whether it really needs to continue to hold such an event.
The cherry blossom-viewing party has been held every year (except when it was canceled under special circumstances) since Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida organized the first in 1952 to honor the accomplishments of people from various fields. In 2010, when the Liberal Democratic Party was out of power, the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama continued the tradition.
The people invited by the government include members of the imperial family, Diet members, governors and ambassadors from other countries, along with renowned athletes and people in the entertainment business among “representatives” from various fields. The cost is covered by state funding and participation is free of charge, while attendees are offered food and drinks at the outdoor event held at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo.
The number of people invited to the seasonal event has been rising sharply in recent years — along with the government spending on it — since Abe returned to the government’s helm in 2012. About 18,000 people took part in the event held in April — up from 14,000 in 2014 and roughly 10,000 in the past — with its cost rising to some ¥55 million this year from ¥30 million five years ago. But what came under criticism was not the sheer number of the attendees or spending but suspicions that politicians are inviting their own supporters to entertain them at the state-funded event.
What triggered the discussion was a charge by an opposition lawmaker in the Diet that hundreds of Abe’s supporters from his constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture were invited to attend the cherry-viewing event. The prime minister denied that he was involved in deciding who gets the invitations, but it surfaced later that his political office was soliciting members of his local support organization to participate in a tour to Tokyo that included the blossom-viewing event.
Suga initially denied that special quotas were set aside for the prime minister or any other politician to decide whom to invite to the annual event. However, he later acknowledged that “customarily” the Cabinet secretariat has been asking high-ranking members of the administration, including the prime minister, the chief Cabinet secretary and their deputies, and senior lawmakers in the ruling parties to recommend people who should be invited.
Asked whether it is appropriate for lawmakers to invite their supporters to the cherry-viewing event, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said that it is only natural that Diet members “give consideration to people in their constituencies,” while noting that he “did not remember” whether he invited supporters in his own district to the event.
Suga said he was not aware how many invitees are recommended by each of the administration officials or ruling party lawmakers. The government says that the invitation list for the event last April was thrown away the following month — in accordance with the protocol for such documents.
Politicians wining and dining voters in their electoral districts at their own expense amounts to a violation of the Public Office Election Law. The opposition camp is charging that lawmakers entertaining their supporters at government-funded events is equal to using taxpayer money for their private campaigns. Abe has told reporters that the decision to cancel next year’s event was made on his own judgment. But merely canceling the event does not answer any of the questions raised over the way it has been organized.