Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie, pose with participants of the 2018 cherry blossom viewing event. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied any role in inviting people to a much-criticized sakura event in Tokyo, but his Yamaguchi Prefecture office made arrangements for party participants who happened to be his constituents, documents show.

Opposition lawmakers have questioned Abe about how much he knew about who was invited to the annual cherry blossom viewing event at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden because of its ballooning costs in public funds.

They also want to know why so many of his local supporters are showing up at these parties, which appear to have deviated from their original purpose of expressing appreciation to individuals from various fields for their achievements and endeavors.

A resident of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, which Abe represents in the Lower House, received a letter from Abe’s local office about two months before the cherry blossom party that was held on April 21, 2018.

He said the letter offered four possible tour courses in different parts of Tokyo, including a river cruise, that could be taken before the cherry blossom event the following day.

The letter also explained that on the night before the sakura event, Abe and his wife, Akie, would appear at a dinner reception planned at the luxurious Hotel New Otani.

Tours cost between 69,000 yen ($630) and 77,000 yen.

The letter said a formal invitation to the cherry blossom viewing party would be sent from the Cabinet Office to the address included in the application form.

The man who received the letter had earlier met with a local secretary of Abe and indicated his interest in joining the cherry blossom viewing event.

In April, he received another letter from Abe’s local office that contained itinerary details, including the times of the flights and events. The letter even offered instructions to guests on how they could get their pictures taken with the Abes at the cherry blossom viewing party.

Later, the man received a formal invitation from the government under the name of Abe in his capacity as prime minister.

The man paid about 70,000 yen to a local travel agency, which made the flight and hotel arrangements.

On April 20, 2018, he and a few acquaintances drove to Yamaguchi-Ube Airport for the flight to Tokyo. Upon arrival at Haneda Airport, the group boarded a large bus that took them on their tour of Tokyo. Alcohol was served with their lunches.

The man also paid 5,000 yen for the dinner reception at the Hotel New Otani with the Abes. He stayed at the hotel, and a chartered bus arrived the following morning to take the group to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden for the cherry blossom viewing party.

The group had arrived about an hour before the start of the event, so they were the only ones at the park. They entered without any security check.

The Abes soon showed up and began having their photos taken with the guests from Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Food and drinks, including alcohol, were provided.

Another man from Shimonoseki who attended this year’s cherry blossom viewing event said he had a similar experience.

He took part in the tour through a local assembly member, but he was also a member of Abe’s local support group.

The man said he was among hundreds of participants who attended the dinner reception the night before the cherry blossom viewing event this year.

He said that at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, he met a local acquaintance who said the desired tour option could only be guaranteed if the application form was submitted early.

The man said he was never told why he was invited to take part in the sakura viewing event in the capital.

The Asahi Shimbun sent written questions to Abe’s local office regarding the cherry viewing event. No response was received as of 9 p.m. on Nov. 12.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Nov. 12 that a review would be conducted about the standards for determining who should be invited to the cherry blossom viewing event.

Moreover, Suga the following day admitted that some participants were invited based on recommendations from politicians.

Executives of the ruling coalition on Nov. 13 agreed on the need to establish clearer standards for the invitations.

A number of politicians who attended past cherry blossom viewing events began deleting blog posts regarding their participation.

Ritsuko Fujii, mayor of Shunan, Yamaguchi Prefecture, removed her posts for 2014 and 2018.

In 2018, Fujii, who was then a prefectural assembly member, wrote about meeting with Satsuki Katayama, an Upper House member, at the sakura event and being told: “There are certainly many participants from Yamaguchi Prefecture. I meet someone from Yamaguchi every 10 meters that I walk.”

Regarding why she deleted the posts, Fujii said she didn’t want to cause problems for individuals whose names appeared in her blog.

Hiroshige Seko, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Upper House caucus, also deleted all postings about the cherry blossom viewing event from his official website. He cited the need to protect the privacy of individuals who appeared in the uploaded photos.