Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses the gathering at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden to take in the cherry blossoms on April 13. (Pool)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ever-expanding and increasingly expensive cherry blossom viewing gatherings have come under scrutiny as possible festivities intended to thank his supporters at the expense of taxpayers.

Opposition lawmakers are forming a task force to look into the annual gatherings hosted by Abe at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in central Tokyo.

The prime minister-hosted sakura gatherings began in 1952 and were intended to bring together people from various sectors to express appreciation for their achievements and endeavors and for friendly conversation under the cherry blossoms.

Since 2014, the number of participants has increased by between 500 and 1,000 every year. The figure for 2019 was about 4,500 more than five years ago.

These parties are not your typical blue-tarp affair involving cheap booze and convenience store snacks.

For this year's event in April, about 17.67 million yen ($162,000) was set aside in the initial budget. However, since fiscal 2015, the actual amount spent on the one-day event has more than doubled the figure earmarked in the initial budget.

The Cabinet Office has placed a request for about 57 million yen for fiscal 2020, more than three times the figure for the current fiscal year.

The outline for the 2019 event said about 10,000 people would be invited, including imperial family members, ambassadors, the heads of the two Diet chambers, Cabinet ministers, prefectural governors and representatives from various sectors.

The actual turnout was about 18,200, including a number of show-business celebrities.

Opposition party lawmakers are looking at whether the increase in participants is because supporters of Abe and other bigwigs are being invited in large numbers.

At the Nov. 8 Upper House Budget Committee session, Tomoko Tamura of the Japanese Communist Party pointed out that many backers of Abe and Koichi Hagiuda, the education minister, appear to have taken part in the April event based on their blog posts.

Tamura asked Abe if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had set a special quota for supporters regardless of whether they made any outstanding achievements in their fields.

Abe said he was not involved in deciding who should be invited to the gathering.

Tamura further pressed Abe about why so many supporters from his constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture had been invited.

Abe said that was likely because many officials from neighborhood associations and the PTA just happened to be among his supporters.

Tamura also raised questions about the pre-party held on the night before the cherry blossom viewing. That party is also hosted by Abe, and about 850 people showed up this year.

She noted that 17 buses were used this year to transport those participants to the sakura party at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

“Isn’t the party and the cherry blossom gathering part of a set that you prepared so you could thank your supporters for their past help?” Tamura asked the prime minister.

Abe said he could not reveal who attended the party because personal information was involved.

The Cabinet Office official in charge of the event said all documents related to the cherry blossom gathering, including who was invited and by what government body, were destroyed soon after the event because the information was not considered important enough to keep for more than one year.

But opposition party lawmakers feel Abe must explain himself in more detail considering that he is the host of the cherry blossom viewing event.

Even members of the ruling coalition said the opposition’s concerns were not trivial.

One LDP executive said other politicians had invited many of their own supporters to the event.

An executive of junior coalition partner Komeito said if public funds were distributed by politicians to offset transportation costs for the event, that could constitute a legal violation.

Hiroshi Kamiwaki, a professor of constitutional law at Kobe Gakuin University who is knowledgeable about political ethics, said there could be legal violations if public funds were used to invite backers of influential politicians who did not meet the original conditions for being invited to the gathering.

“Using public funds to invite supporters would constitute using funds for private purposes,” Kamiwaki said. “As the host of the event, the prime minister should aggressively release information to eliminate any doubts that have been raised.”

(This article was written by Go Kobayashi, Ryutaro Abe and Keishi Nishimura.)