Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's use of a cherry blossom-viewing party to host supporters from his home constituency has raised suspicions that the government's official event is being used for his private purposes. As the latest revelations highlight a lack of transparency in the management of the party, it's only natural that the practice of inviting many of Abe's supporters to the annual celebration has been met with disapproval and claims that he is exploiting the public event for his own gain.
The central government has reportedly begun to consider narrowing down the number of guests to be invited to the function. Still, the prime minister should explain the management of past cherry blossom-viewing parties.
Attendance to the annual gathering, where the prime minister meets and greets guests and alcohol and sweets are served, is free of charge, and taxpayers' money is used to cover the cost of the function. The party was first held shortly after the end of World War II but was only convened once when the now defunct Democratic Party of Japan was in power from 2009 to 2012.
The fact that the number of guests and the cost of organizing the party has sharply increased since Abe returned to power in December 2012 cannot be overlooked. Approximately 18,000 people were invited to the function held this past spring, up about 4,500 from one held in fiscal 2014. The Cabinet Office has requested some 57 million yen in the fiscal 2020 state budget draft to cover the next cherry blossom-viewing party, nearly twice the amount allocated in the fiscal 2014 budget.
A probe conducted by the opposition Japanese Communist Party shows that among attendees are numerous members of support groups for the prime minister and other ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) legislators. Abe's supporters from his home constituency held a party at a Tokyo hotel attended by roughly 850 people the night before the cherry blossom-viewing gathering. Both the events were reportedly held as a package.
The criteria for selecting who should be invited to the party also remains obscure. The prime minister has told the Diet, "We invite those who have made outstanding achievements in various fields to the party. Some guests from legislators' home constituencies serve as board members of neighborhood associations and PTAs, and these people sometimes belong to lawmakers' support organizations." However, this does not explain why the number of guests has sharply increased.
What doesn't help is that the Cabinet Office that plays a leading role in selecting guests to attend the function insists that it discarded relevant documents.
The government claims that the cost of organizing the party has significantly increased due to beefed up countermeasures against terrorism and traffic-easing measures. If so, the government should promptly release a detailed breakdown of the cost.
If politicians holding public office were to wine and dine voters, it would constitute a violation of the Public Offices Election Act. Politicians' use of official events for private purposes could be deemed as using taxpayers' money for their election strategies. Mixing personal affairs and public activities is something that should never be done by a prime minister who has political authority.
Critics have also pointed out that a certain quota for inviting supporters to the cherry blossom-viewing party is allocated to LDP legislators. There is no denying the fact that the ruling bloc as a whole has become numb to intertwining public and private activities.