It was only recently that the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made history by becoming the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history. Japan’s democratic transition from a feudal administration dates back to 1890 and since then Japan had seen prime ministers come and go with the exception of few holding the position for a relatively lengthy period. The trend continued throughout the post World War II period as well. Making a record amid such past legacy is indeed a fit that deserves to be hailed and appreciated. Abe also was duly congratulated within the country.
However, this achievement has not been one without controversy. In fact controversy and scandals seem to have followed him since the early days of his administration and the latest one emerged almost simultaneously with his record breaking success.
Prime Minister’s cherry blossom-viewing party is an annual event usually held in mid-April at Shinjuku Gyoen Park in the heart of Tokyo where dignitaries and leading personalities from various fields are invited to enjoy the beauty of Japanese cherry trees in full bloom. In this morning time event, guests are also served food and drink and they get the opportunity of seeing some of the celebrities of the entertainment world, who too are invited as guests. The annual event is being held since 1952 with taxpayers’ money and is seen in Japan as the largest cherry blossom-viewing parties in the country. During this long period the event was cancelled only twice, in 2011 due to the earthquake and tsunami that hit north-eastern Japan causing widespread damages along with triggering Fukushima disaster and the following year after North Korea threatened that it would fire a ballistic missile.
However, this year event came under attack not from the outside or due to any natural calamity, but from within the country’s political circle. The list of invited guests, who are selected by the cabinet office on recommendations from the prime minister and various ministries and agencies, has come under criticism from opposition politicians after it was revealed that the constituents of Abe’s electoral district were not only getting favorable treatment in the selection process, but also had been enjoying few other privileges in connection with their participation.
Until Abe returned to power in December 2012, these annual events usually drew less than 10,000 invited guests. However, from 2013 onward the guest list started to swell, topping 18,000 this year with a price tag of 55 million yen coming from the government coffer. As next year’s preparation is now underway, the Abe administration made a budget request of more than 57 million yen and this prompted a lower house opposition member to raise the question at the Diet deliberation of why the government wanted an increased budget for next year’s party. This led to other issues of who are usually invited and how much is spent on which purpose; revealing ultimately incidents of blatant cronyism that remained hidden until now.
Facing questioning at the Diet, Abe admitted that he was involved in selecting 1,000 guests and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was given a quota of around 6,000. In addition, Chief Cabinet Secretary recommended another 1,000 and the rest being distributed among various ministries and agencies.
Japanese media also revealed that prior to this year’s cherry blossom party, about 800 Abe supporters, including many from his home constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture, gathered at a posh hotel in Tokyo for a party organized by prime minister’s political office. They were charged 5,000 yen each, a figure that opposition politicians see as being far below the real amount. This led to allegations that the make-up amount must have been provided by other sources and also entertaining supporters of his home base by inviting them to the official cherry blossom-viewing party is part of a vote buying attempt and possibly a violation of law.
To clarify further, an opposition lawmaker demanded that the government provided the guest list of this year’s invitees to the party. In response the government had told the Diet that the guest list for this year’s party was destroyed on May 9, incidentally the same day the opposition lawmaker made the request. Whether it is a mere coincidence or an attempted cover-up is a matter being discussed in the Japanese media. Moreover, as the revelation of one scandal is usually followed by another, this latest one too had not been an exception.
A photograph circulated on the Internet had shown Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga shaking hands with a suspected member of an anti-social group at this year’s cherry blossom party. When opposition lawmakers asked Suga about the photo he replied that he had no knowledge about the individual in the photo, but added that security lapse might have made it possible for such individuals to join the gathering, a claim that many find difficult to be convinced of.
As an immediate reaction to such criticisms, the government has decided to cancel next year’s event and also made it clear that the guest list for future events will be reviewed. However, the incident had damaged Abe’s public standing as a survey conducted right after the unfolding of this latest scandal showed that his support rate had fallen 5.4 percent from last month. Moreover, as the opposition continues to grill the ruling party over the scandal, passing an amendment to the national referendum law during the current Diet session now seems to be extremely difficult. The ruling camp sees the revision as the first step towards revising the constitution that Abe is long aiming for and was hoping for its passage at the current Diet session.
Amid such developments some media are speculating that Abe might call a snap election in January to strengthen support for constitutional revision. However, a snap election will not be a risk-free one as failing to secure more than two-thirds majority would mean missing the target all together, a situation that might compel him to leave the office without achieving his long cherished goal.
(Tokyo, December 2, 2019)