Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that he will cancel next year’s edition of the annual cherry blossom-viewing function he hosts. The move follows criticism that he was using the taxpayer-funded event for private purposes by inviting many members of organizations supporting him and other ruling party legislators.
Simply canceling the event, however, is insufficient, as the government has failed to explain how it was managed, and it remains overshadowed by a lack of transparency.
The cherry blossom-viewing party was called into question when critics pointed out that the number of attendees and the cost of holding the function have sharply increased under the Abe administration.
Notices outlining the party were sent to voters in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where Abe has been elected as a member of the House of Representatives, in the name of Abe’s private office. A bus tour of Tokyo and a private party at a Tokyo hotel were arranged as pre-events on the day before the cherry blossom-viewing gathering. It has been reported that the number of guests at these pre-events totaled some 850 people, and they had effectively become the Abe support group’s annual functions.
The first cherry blossom-viewing party was held in 1952, after the end of World War II, and celebrities, athletes and others in various fields who made outstanding achievements, as well as diplomats, were invited to the event. We have no intention of raising questions about the purpose of the function.
It appears to have been a customary practice to invite supporters of politicians who serve as high-ranking officials of the government to the function. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga admitted that the Cabinet Secretariat had asked the prime minister and the ruling bloc to recommend individuals to attend the party. The problem is that a particularly large number of members of an organization supporting Abe were present at the party.
If an individual politician treats voters to a drink or meal, they can be accused of violating the Public Offices Election Act. Just because the cherry blossom-viewing function is organized by the government and not by individual politicians, that does not make it all right for the prime minister or other legislators to invite as many people as they want. They are expected to exercise moderation in accordance with the purpose of the event.
The government’s guidelines for the cherry blossom-viewing party state that the number of guests should be approximately 10,000. However, more than 18,000 people were present at this year’s party. It remains unclear how many of them were invited on the recommendation of politicians.
Abe should elaborate on the function’s management and his own involvement in it. One cannot help but wonder how much it cost to organize the bus tour and pre-event for members of his supporting organization. The prime minister is the only person who can prove that public funds or his political funds were never used for these events.
If the government intends to resume the cherry blossom-viewing party in 2021, it should clarify the criteria for the invitation of guests and the appropriate number of guests to avoid giving rise to suspicions that politicians are using the government-funded function for their private purposes.
Any thoughts by the prime minister that he could draw the curtain on the matter by canceling next year’s party instead of clarifying the way the event is organized should be criticized as arrogance arising from his long-term rule of the government.
The question now is whether Prime Minister Abe can maintain moderation and fulfill his accountability. The matter cannot be clarified unless the prime minister attends a Diet session and provides a sincere explanation.