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Guest likens PM Abe's controversial sakura parties to 'meet-and-greet with pop star'

Wooden boxes distributed at the 2018 cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are seen in this Nov. 14, 2019 photo, taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. They have also been sold by people using marketplace websites. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)
In this April 2017 file photo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center left, and his wife Akie, center right, pose for photos with guests at a cherry blossom-viewing party at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- A repeat guest at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's annual cherry blossom viewing parties has spoken to the Mainichi Shimbun about the lavish atmosphere at the events, while speculating that Abe's loyalty to his electoral district may have played a part in some invitations.

"It was like a meet-and-greet with a pop star," the male guest, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Mainichi Shimbun in a Nov. 14 interview.

The man, a resident of Tokyo running his own business, has ties with a group that supports the prime minister. Since the current Abe administration took power in 2012, the man has attended each of the cherry blossom-viewing parties, including going to the most recent one in spring with his family.

The taxpayer-funded parties have recently come under scrutiny, partly due to a lack of transparency in the selection of guests -- resulting in the cancellation of next year's event.

The man said that although guests must present their invitation to gain entry, there are still security checks on visitors' possessions. "Each year the number of people coming to them went up," he said.

He said that at this year's event, he saw many politicians doing the rounds and thanking him and other guests for their continued support. There was also a noticeable number of entertainers he'd seen on TV, as well as many people who seemed like experts in their fields. Others were taking photographs in the flowery atmosphere.

Along with food such as yakitori being served at the venue, Japanese sake was also passed around. Sweets were distributed in boxes, which some guests took home as souvenirs. "Prime Minister Abe really seemed very busy," he said. He continued, "It's standard practice for him to take a photo with members of his supporters' group ahead of the official start time. They all rush in on a chartered bus."

There are two spots prepared for photographs among the cherry blossoms with Abe and his wife, with about 10 of their supporters on standby for each shot. The couple shuttled between the two spots continually. "There were just a few meters separating each one, but Abe was going back and forth, back and forth," the man told the Mainichi Shimbun.

On the question of why Abe chose to have members of his electoral district invited to the party, the man said, "For Abe, losing his seat in an election is unthinkable, so activities of this extent with his district members wouldn't be necessary just for the sake of elections." He then speculated, "Abe has a side of him which is very loyal. He has very few opportunities to return to his district, so at the cherry blossom-viewing parties, perhaps he does it to try to fulfill some of his obligations."

But the man was critical of the financing and organization of the gatherings, saying, "For members of supporters groups to eat and drink at taxpayers' expense is not good. The public can't be happy about that, so I think it's the right decision to suspend the next event and try to make the criteria for invitation clearer."

(Japanese original by Yoshiaki Ebata, Integrated Digital News Center)

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