Photo/Illutration A banner at the entrance to the Yamaguchi prefectural government building celebrates Prime Minister Shinzo Abe breaking the record for consecutive days served. (Hiroki Ito)

Social media predictably reacted to prominent banners hoisted at local government buildings in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's home constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture to congratulate him on breaking the record for consecutive days served in the post.

Opinion seemed to be evenly divided with some tweets expressing doubts over whether the banners violated political neutrality on the part of an administrative organ, while others posted by Yamaguchi residents crowed with pride, saying there was nothing untoward with celebrating the milestone.

By Aug. 26, Yamaguchi prefectural authorities had been inundated with dozens of phone calls and emails after the banners were put in place on Aug. 24 to mark Abe's achievement of serving 2,799 consecutive days in office, beating the record set by his great-uncle, Eisaku Sato.

Some said they wanted to celebrate Abe breaking the record, while others wondered if taxpayers’ money should be used for such purposes.

Abe represents a district in Yamaguchi Prefecture, located in the Chugoku region of the main Honshu island.

The Yamaguchi prefectural government erected banners at three locations, including the main prefectural government building, at a cost of 220,000 yen ($2,060).

A prefectural government official explained that the banners simply represented a desire to express happiness along with all Yamaguchi residents rather than simply the consensus of the prefectural government. 

The city government building in Shimonoseki, which Abe represents in the Lower House, also posted a similar banner.

“We want to celebrate his actions in his position as prime minister who represents the nation, rather than from a political standpoint,” Yamaguchi Governor Tsugumasa Muraoka stated at an Aug. 26 news conference.

Local government bureaucrats are prohibited from engaging in any political activities that could be construed as showing support for a particular party or Cabinet.

There have been other instances of local governments celebrating a local politician becoming prime minister or Cabinet minister.

When Yasuo Fukuda became prime minister in 2007, the Takasaki city government building in Gunma Prefecture raised a celebratory banner.

On three previous occasions, Yamaguchi Prefecture has celebrated major political achievements by Abe. Banners were installed in 2006 and 2012 when he became prime minister as well as in 2019 when he broke the record for total tenure as prime minister.

Experts were also divided on whether the banners in this latest case were appropriate.

“Having a local government use taxpayer money and hang up a banner at the prefectural government building that is the workplace for civil servants who are asked to be politically neutral gives the impression that the prefectural government supports Prime Minister Abe,” noted Nobuo Sasaki, professor emeritus of public administration at Chuo University. “The move was excessive because not every voter in Yamaguchi Prefecture is a supporter of Abe.”

But Yoshifumi Iwanaka, who has written books describing the characteristics of residents of Japan’s prefectures, pointed out that Yamaguchi has produced the most prime ministers of any of the nation's 47 prefectures.

“Yamaguchi residents hold the feeling that their prefecture ‘built modern Japan,’” Iwanaka said. “A characteristic of the prefecture is a strong feeling toward statesmen from the prefecture.”

He added that it was likely that many Yamaguchi residents wanted to celebrate a Yamaguchi politician serving a long time as prime minister.

(This article was written by Hiroki Ito and Takuya Miyano.)