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Abe cherry blossom scandal stirs up tweet storm of rare intensity

Falling approval suggests Japan PM's aura of invincibility may be fading

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe poses with guests during this past spring's cherry blossom viewing party in Tokyo.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- If Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a kryptonite, it might prove to be cherry blossoms.

Abe in late November became the country's longest-serving prime minister. But accusations that he used taxpayer-funded cherry blossom viewing parties to reward his political supporters have resonated online like few other scandals, a new study of Twitter activity has found.

Though the prime minister remains blessed with a combination of weak opposition parties and few strong rivals within his own Liberal Democratic Party, the controversy has dented not only his approval ratings but, perhaps, his aura of invincibility.

Cherry blossom viewing, or hanami, is a spring tradition in Japan. Crowds gather under the white and pink blooms to eat, drink and be merry. For years, the government has hosted parties meant to honor the accomplishments of athletes, celebrities and other luminaries. Revelations that Abe's supporters were among the invitees, however, raised questions about inappropriate use of public funds and sent the Twitterati buzzing.

The daily number of tweets involving the term "sakura wo miru kai," or "cherry blossom viewing party," began to surge on Nov. 8, when the Japanese Communist Party grilled Abe in parliament, according to an analysis performed with an NTT Data market research service. The tweet count peaked at over 740,000 on Nov. 13, when the government announced the cancellation of next spring's event.

The number subsequently declined but was still hovering around 300,000 late in the month.

Some experts think the universality of hanami -- who in Japan has not picnicked under a cherry tree at some point? -- makes the issue resonate more than most.

"It is easy to respond because hanami is a common theme that anybody can talk about," said Masao Matsumoto, a professor at Saitama University who specializes in political awareness.

Indeed, a closer look at Twitter conversations shows the scandal has far exceeded the post numbers for other hot topics.

Consider the resignations of two Abe cabinet members: Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Isshu Sugawara and Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai. Both quit in late October over different scandals involving money and politics. On the days they stepped down, tweets about them topped out at 20,000 to 30,000.

Not even the arrest of a superstar actress over drugs could beat the hanami debate. Tweets about Erika Sawajiri, who was taken into custody on Nov. 16 on suspicion of possessing MDMA, or ecstasy, peaked at 440,000.

Broadening the scope of tweets produces equally striking results. The maximum number of daily posts with the word "sakura," or cherry blossom, was 910,000, versus around 100,000 for the names "Sugawara" and "Kawai" and the word "jinin," or resignation.

But if it was simply a matter of the issue being easy relate to, surely a controversy over pensions -- which are bound to affect everyone -- would have gained more traction.

In June, a government panel said in a report that a typical senior couple will need 20 million yen (about $183,000) in savings because pensions alone will not be not enough. This highlighted concerns over the sustainability of the pension system and became fodder for debate. Even so, the daily number of tweets was in the ballpark of 100,000.

Ichiro Takeuchi, a playwright and producer, suggested the cherry blossom scandal hit home with people who already had a sneaking feeling that something about the parties was not right.

"There should be many people who had felt something strange," Takeuchi said. Some probably questioned whether the guests who showed up in photos and footage with Abe were "really people who should be rewarded for their services and achievements."

Japanese TV channels have been showing a steady stream of clips of past parties, possibly keeping the public's resentment fresh.

Observers also point to the government's slow reaction.

"The government has fallen behind in explaining what opposition parties and media outlets have raised. It should have explained properly from the outset," said Kuniyoshi Shirai, a crisis management consultant.

At first, Abe denied any involvement in the process of selecting guests, only to later admit that he did have a say. The revelation that the Cabinet Office disposed of this year's guest list only fanned suspicions.

Whatever the reasons for the scandal's staying power, the latest opinion polling shows it has taken a toll.

A Nikkei-TV Tokyo poll conducted from Nov. 22 to 24 found the Abe cabinet's approval ranking fell 7 points from a month earlier to 50%. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents said they are "dissatisfied" with the premier's explanations about the parties.

Even so, the poll also found that the opposition has failed to capitalize so far.

Though the LDP's support rate plunged 7 points to 39%, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan's rate increased a single point to 8%, while the Japanese Communist Party's figure remained unchanged at 4%.

"It is not that the prime minister violated any laws," said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political psychology at the International University of Health and Welfare. Likewise, he added, "It's not that people agree with the opposition parties' calls to 'topple the Abe government'" over the parties alone.

If anything, the scandal has simply increased the number of Japanese citizens who feel politically homeless: 36% of opinion poll respondents said they have no party to support, up 7 points from the previous survey.

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