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Politics

Shinzo Abe cancels government-funded cherry-blossom event

Opposition questions whether prime minister uses party to favor supporters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe runs to greet guests during a cherry blossom party at Shinjuku Gyoen park in Tokyo in April.   © Reuters

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to cancel a controversial publicly funded cherry-blossom event next year amid mounting criticism that he has previously used it to entertain his supporters, the top government spokesman said Wednesday.

As the opposition forces have taken issue with what they see as murky criteria for selecting guests to the annual event, held every April since 1952, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government will carry out a "comprehensive" review.

"Given there are various views on the cherry-blossom viewing event, we'd like to clarify the invitation criteria, make the process transparent and conduct a comprehensive review, including the budget and the number of invitees," Suga said at a press conference.

He added the cancellation of the event next April was Abe's own decision.

Held at a Tokyo park famous for its cherry blossoms, the government-funded event is intended to honor people such as athletes and celebrities for their accomplishments.

It came under the spotlight after revelations that Abe's supporters were among those invited, raising questions about the use of taxpayers' money.

Under his administration, the number of guests and the amount of money spent by the government on the gathering have been on the rise.

The abrupt announcement came as Japan's opposition parties stepped up calls on the premier to explain the matter in the Diet. Earlier in the day, the ruling coalition of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito agreed on the need for a review of the guest selection criteria.

Abe has denied he was involved in selecting who attends, as the government -- specifically the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretariat -- decides on the list of people to be invited based on recommendations from each ministry and agency.

Suga revealed Wednesday that it has been a "long-held practice" for the secretariat to also gather guest recommendations from the ruling parties and within the Cabinet, including the prime minister, deputy prime minister and chief and deputy chief Cabinet secretaries.

The opposition forces have called for the release of past guest lists, but the Cabinet Office has said they have been discarded as it did not deem it necessary to retain them.

However, the education ministry said Wednesday that the lists of recommended guests it compiled and submitted between 2017 and 2019 have been kept, in line with the ministry's own rules.

Education minister Koichi Hagiuda told a parliamentary session that some of his supporters did participate in the cherry-blossom viewing event.

When pressed to disclose the ministry's lists by an opposition lawmaker in the session, Hagiuda said, "We cannot disclose them because they are only recommendations and include a lot of personal information."

Another member of Abe's Cabinet, health minister Katsunobu Kato, also admitted in a separate parliamentary session that some supporters from his constituency had attended the event. But he denied that his office was involved in drawing up the invitation list.

The major opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and three other parties are set to grill Abe over the annual gathering in Diet.

The government sets a rough target of 10,000 for the number of people invited to the seasonal event at Tokyo's Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

This year, about 18,000 people took part with the government spending about 55 million yen ($504,000), up from about 30 million yen in 2014.

The controversy arose after Japanese Communist Party lawmaker Tomoko Tamura told parliament recently that the cherry-blossom viewing party was part of a big event for Abe's supporters and questioned the use of taxpayers' money as a possible election violation.

Abe's office at his constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture, western Japan, has solicited supporters who wished to participate in the annual cherry-blossom viewing event on a package tour to Tokyo, according to supporters.

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