On November 13, 2019, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced that the annual Cherry Blossom Viewing Party would not be held in 2020 because of criticism of the Abe Government in both the media and in the National Diet of Japan. The cancellation of one of the feature events on the political calendar, which has been held annually since 1952 in the middle of April at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden by the Japanese Prime Minister, came as a major surprise and may be indicative of the government’s sensitivities to allegations of corruption.
The Cherry Blossom Viewing Party as a Traditional Annual Event in Japan
The purpose of the Cherry Blossom Viewing Party is to acknowledge those who have made significant contributions to Japanese society. Approximately 10,000 guests are invited and entertained with sushi, beer, sake, and snacks. It is a big occasion with members of the imperial family, ambassadors, speakers of the Lower and Upper Houses, Chief Justice of Supreme Court of Japan, ministers and state ministers, Diet members, governors of each prefecture, artists, and athletes in attendance as well as official guests invited by the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretariat.
Cherry blossoms (sakura) with delicate whitish pink hues have been loved by the Japanese people since ancient times, and sakura viewing (hanami) is an important cultural event to celebrate the arrival of spring with family members and friends. However, the traditional official customary event has been a focus of political controversy for Shinzo Abe and his government. The following three problems were raised by opposition party legislators during the Diet session; abuse of executive power of the Cabinet; the possible violation of the Public Offices Election Law; and the control of the governmental documents.
The problems associated with the Cherry Blossom Viewing Party manifested when Toru Miyamoto, a lawmaker from the Japanese Communist Party, raised concerns in the Committee on Audit and Oversight of Administration of the Lower House on May 13, 2019. It turned out that the expenditure in the 2018 fiscal year amounted to approximately 52 million yen, which was three times larger than the originally allocated budget, some 17 million yen. Indeed, the budget for the party has been on the increase in the Abe government for the past five years. The number of guest participants of the party during the Abe administration also increased to 18,200 in 2019 compared to 10,000 on average.
Problems of the Sakura Viewing Party Hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Needless to say, the budget for the Cherry Blossom Viewing Party comes from tax revenue. In Japanese politics, “executive power” is vested in the Cabinet as the highest administrative branch of the Japanese government, and the Prime Minister is the head of the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet has the right to administer the law faithfully, conduct affairs of state, manage foreign affairs, conclude treaties, administer civil service, prepare budgets, submit legislation, enact cabinet orders, decide on general amnesty, and to dissolve the Lower House. So certain problems can arise for the administration through bureaucratic processes. Firstly, if the Cabinet increases the expenditure of the Cherry Blossom Viewing Party without budgetary necessity and appropriate explanation, it could be viewed as an abuse of executive power, given the more centralized and authoritative nature of the Abe Cabinet dubbed Japan’s “prime ministerial executive”.
Secondly, opposition parties pointed out that Prime Minister Abe might violate the Public Offices Election Law if he exclusively selected guests from his constituency, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and entertained them with the governmental budget. From this perspective, Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a legislator of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, commented to the Budget Committee of the Lower House on February 03, 2020, that the Prime Minister bought votes from his electorate by hosting the “tax-payer funded” Cherry Blossom Viewing Party as well as a banquet the night before the party held at Hotel New Otani.
Thirdly, the Abe administration has been criticized by opposition parties for the manner in which they have dealt with government documents. On May 09, 2019, Toru Miyamoto requested the Cabinet Office to disclose a guest list of the Cherry Blossom Viewing Party only to discover that the Cabinet Office had already shredded the document. Interestingly, it came to light that the guest list was shredded by the Cabinet Office on the same day that Miyamoto requested its disclosure. Koichi Nakano, Professor of political science at Sofia University, commented that “It seems to be a recurring pattern of tampering with and destroying documents to hide inconvenient facts” because governmental documents “should be kept for at least a year” in Japan.
On top of these main criticisms, it was also pointed out that Takayoshi Yamaguchi, former chairman of the Japan Life Corporation, was reportedly invited by the Prime Minister to attend a Cherry Blossom Viewing Party in 2015. Notably, Yamaguchi is linked to a malicious “pyramid marketing scheme” as well as other illegal actions, and was convicted for tax evasion in 1984. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, moreover, inspected his house for a suspected violation of the Specified Commercial Transaction Law in April 2019. Yamaguchi reportedly utilized an invitation letter by the Prime Minister to the Cherry Blossom Viewing Party to allure potential customers who probably became victims of his company.
The suspension of the state-sponsored sakura viewing party could yet be another lasting scandal to damage the legacy of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, already troubled by the outbreak of coronavirus. The administration’s approval ratings plummeted in February 2020, “following criticism of the government’s handling of documents related to publicly funded annual cherry blossom viewing parties at the center of allegations of cronyism”. It was the sharpest fall in two years, and there would need to be sufficient explanations provided in the future, should the prime minister-authorized cultural event be resumed in the spring of next year.