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Abe admits involvement in guest selection for cherry blossom party

  • November 20, 2019
  • , Kyodo News , 9:28 p.m.
  • English Press

TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged Wednesday that he was involved in the guest selection process for a publicly funded cherry blossom viewing party, drawing criticism from the opposition that the public event was used for election campaigning.


The prime minister was allowed to recommend as many as 1,000 guests with his wife Akie also making recommendations, government officials said in parliament. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, led by Abe, had a quota of roughly 6,000.


The annual cherry blossom viewing event, which began in 1952, has been at the center of controversy ever since it came to light that hundreds of Abe supporters were invited.


For years, the government has made it a practice to finalize the guest list based on recommendations from politicians, including the prime minister, sparking criticism that the process is opaque and the public event has been used for personal or political gain.


Abe told the Diet that his office had been soliciting a wide range of people who wanted to attend the event after receiving a request for recommendations from the Cabinet Secretariat.


“I gave my opinion regarding people to be recommended when consulted by my office,” Abe said.


“I should deeply reflect on how it was managed,” the prime minister said, adding what he described as the unclear selection criteria will be the target of a forthcoming review by the government.


Abe’s acknowledgement that he had a say in deciding on who to recommend conflicts with his earlier explanation that he was not involved in the guest selection.


But Abe denied again on Wednesday that he was involved in finalizing the guest list, even as some critics questioned whether the government would reject any recommendations from the prime minister’s side at all.


The recent furor over the event is a headache for Abe, who on Wednesday became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.


The 65-year-old has so far overcome a series of favoritism allegations since his return to power in 2012, including a veterinary school project managed by his friend and a planned school linked to the prime minister’s wife.


Opposition party lawmakers are increasingly on the offensive, taking issue with how the annual cherry blossom viewing has been organized.


“It has become obvious that a public event was treated as part of election campaigning,” Jun Azumi, the Diet affairs chief of the major opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters.


“Taxpayers’ money has been used for unintended purposes. We will seek a thorough explanation,” Azumi said.


Held at a Tokyo park known for its cherry blossoms, the public event is meant to honor people such as athletes and celebrities for their accomplishments.


The number of guests, along with government funding, has grown in recent years, and Abe has decided to cancel next year’s event while the government’s comprehensive review is under way.


In a separate parliamentary session on Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga revealed a breakdown of some 15,000 invitees to the cherry blossom viewing event this year.


On top of Abe’s 1,000, another 1,000 were recommended by the deputy prime minister, and chief and deputy chief Cabinet secretaries. In addition to the LDP’s quota of about 6,000, another 6,000 were picked by ministries and agencies to honor their accomplishments.


The government had considered reducing the size of the cherry blossom event for April 2016, following terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 that raised security concerns, according to government sources. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks at the time.


But with an upper house election approaching in July that year, the plan was eventually shelved in an apparent bid to secure enough spots for ruling party supporters.


“The plan to reduce the number of invited guests disappeared with the upper house election coming up three months later,” one government source said.


Around 13,600 were eventually invited to the 2016 event, unchanged from the previous year, though the total number of actual participants rose to 16,000, including those accompanying the invitees.

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