Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must answer questions if he wants to clear the growing suspicions that he has used taxpayer-funded Cabinet events to advance his own personal interests.
It has recently come to light that annual cherry blossom viewing parties, hosted by the prime minister every spring in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in central Tokyo, have continued to grow in attendance every year since Abe’s return to power in 2012. The expanding guest lists have been found to include a good number of Abe’s support group members.
This year’s party in April was attended by about 18,200 guests–an increase of well over 4,000 from five years ago.
But the official “outline” of this year’s party puts the attendance at “approximately 10,000.”
As for the cost, a uniform budget of about 17.67 million yen ($162,000) is appropriated every year. But the actual expenditure has continued to bloat from year to year, and this year’s party cost 55.19 million yen–more than three times the uniform budget.
If this isn’t sloppy budget management, then what is?
In examining the reasons for the growth in attendance, Upper House legislator Tomoko Tamura of the Japanese Communist Party pointed out, during last week’s budget committee session, that many guests were members of support groups of Abe and other Cabinet ministers, as well as of Diet members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Tamura also revealed that 850 of Abe’s supporters were invited to a party held at a Tokyo hotel on the eve of the sakura event, and that 17 buses were used to transport them to Shinjuku Gyoen the next day.
Citing these figures, Tamura challenged the prime minister with the question, “Did you not invite these people precisely in order to thank them for their support?”
Started in 1952 by then Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, the stated purpose of these annual sakura parties was to acknowledge and thank outstanding citizens for their “works and achievements” in various fields and enable the guests to mingle and socialize.
The official “events outline” limits the guests to imperial family members, foreign ambassadors to Japan, Diet members, prefectural governors and “other representatives from various fields.”
This last category appears to include members of politicians’ support groups. Are we supposed to believe that those people have made outstanding contributions to the public at large through their endeavors?
At the Upper House Budget Committee session, however, Abe refused to give any detailed information about those guests, citing their privacy.
A Cabinet Office official in charge of cherry blossom-viewing parties explained that all guest lists and other documents are “destroyed without delay” after each event. But wouldn’t it be normal to keep such documents for reference when preparing the following year’s event?
The Cabinet Office’s lack of transparency is underscored by the fact that the list of guests to garden parties hosted by the emperor and empress are kept on file.
Abe insisted that he had “no involvement” in the invitation process.
However, a probe by The Asahi Shimbun has revealed the existence of documents that show Abe’s office in his Yamaguchi Prefecture constituency organized a sakura tour in Tokyo this past spring.
And since 2013, Abe has not missed a single get-together with support group members on the eve of the annual cherry blossom viewing event.
It is unthinkable that Abe was totally unaware of what was going on.
Just as it was pointed out when the Moritomo and Kake scandals were unfolding, individuals who are close to Abe invariably receive special treatment.
The latest situation has everything to do with fairness in politics, and the prime minister must take it seriously.