TOKYO -- The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) allowed prefectural assembly members to attend last year's cherry blossom-viewing party after they participated in a seminar the day before, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned, suggesting that the annual gathering might have been used to win assembly members' votes for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the party's presidential election later that year.
The finding has yet again highlighted Abe's suspected use of the controversial sakura event for his own gain, as some members within his own party reportedly suggested that inviting local assembly members to the gathering was the prime minister's strategy for "securing the votes of LDP members in the party leadership election." Abe went on to win his third term as the LDP president five months after the cherry blossom party.
According to sources close to the matter, as well as the Mainichi Shimbun's own research, the seminar was held on April 20 last year at a Tokyo hotel under the pretext of "disseminating the party's draft revisions to the Constitution at the regional level." Roughly 800 local lawmakers were invited.
All of the 24 Osaka Prefectural Assembly members belonging to the LDP at the time received invitation letters to the sakura party with Abe's name as the sender. The party was to take place on the day after the seminar. One assemblyperson was told that LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai was going to invite assembly members to the sakura gathering on the sidelines of the seminar.
The LDP's Gifu Prefecture chapter also admitted that its members received notes about the seminar and were practically told that those who wanted to attend the cherry blossom party were welcome to join. Seventeen people from the Gifu chapter ended up going to the seminar, but neither the Osaka nor the Gifu chapters are aware of how many members actually went to the sakura party.
According to the local representatives and other sources, while there was no direct mention of the LDP presidential election at the seminar, materials including books criticizing media coverage of favoritism scandals involving two school operators, Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, were distributed. Investigations into both of those scandals focused on links to Abe, and some reportedly raised questions about the purpose of the seminar, saying that it was being used "to pave the way (for Abe) to win the leadership election."
During the seminar, some attendees were told that they could join the sakura party if they wanted to and that they could bring their spouse, according to the sources. They suspect that Abe's campaign, which was working towards winning his third term as the party president at the time, invited local lawmakers who have opportunities to lobby local party members to the cherry blossom event.
While most secretary-generals and senior officials of LDP prefectural chapters usually receive invitations to the annual sakura party, the Mainichi found that last year, almost all assembly members belonging to LDP chapters in at least three prefectures -- Kyoto, Fukushima and Shiga -- were invited to the event. A source close to the matter suspects this could have been the case for other prefectures as well. However, many prefectural chapters told the Mainichi that they were not aware if all of their members were invited since the letters could have been sent to individuals and not to the chapters.
Abe delivered a speech at the 2018 seminar and also attended the after party. A mid-ranking LDP lawmaker who is knowledgeable of what happened at those gatherings said, "The seminar and cherry blossom-viewing party were a de-facto package deal, and some people were saying the Abe campaign used the events as an election strategy."