Abe Among the Cherry Blossoms

The pink cherry-blossom petals have long fallen out of the trees, but the scandal (or mini scandal) surrounding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s springtime cherry blossom viewing party earlier this year continues to resonate in Japan, taking some of the shine off of Abe’s becoming on November 20 the longest-serving Japanese prime minister in the post-war era.

Abe is accused of inviting hundreds of his political supporters from his parliamentary constituency to the annual government-sponsored cherry blossom viewing party in a downtown Tokyo park. The tab for taxpayers came to about $500,000.

As scandals go effecting Japanese politicians, this one would seem to be pretty trivial, yet as journalists would say, the story seems to have long legs. It is kept alive partially by the opposition, especially from the Japanese Communist Party constantly asking about it.

But it seems to be predominately a social media event. For example, when two cabinet ministers resigned after being accused of violating campaign financing laws last month, the issue barely registered on Twitter. The cherry blossom scandal, on the other hand, was the topic of 740,000 tweets.

Cherry blossom viewing parties – known as hanami in Japanese - go back centuries. During the season, usually in late May or late April. friends throw down a tarpaulin under a cherry tree, break out a cooler and have a picnic. It can go on into the early evening with much singing and drinking.

Since 1957 the Japanese government has sponsored an official hanami, inviting well-known figures such as athletes, diplomats, and other celebrities to the party. Attendees can run into the thousands. This year’s party drew some 18,000 people.

It provides participants of an excellent photo-op, their man or women surrounded by pretty girls in kimono against a vast backdrop of pink cherry blossoms.

Abe came under more criticism when the opposition parties leaked the information that the Liberal Democratic Party had shredded the list of official guests it had invited on the very day in May when the party was held. It seemed to many that the ruling party was trying to cover things up.

Some opposition members complained that stacking the blossom viewing party with campaign supporters was the equivalent of trying to buy votes, although no charges have been raised.

At first, Abe denied filling the government invitees list but soon he admitted he had invited some 800 personal supporters. He apologized and cancelled next year’s official hanami celebration, to consider changes in the format, which, as the number of participants indicates is, getting unwieldy. Abe handled the crisis well, said Junichi Takase, a professor of politics at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. “He admitted wrong-doing, apologized and moved on. That’s better than lying.”

Abe has weathered other more serious scandals during his long tenure. In 2017 he was on the defensive for his connections to the proprietor of an extremely right-wing elementacry school, in what was then known as the Moritomo Gakuen affair. At the time, it seemed as if he might have to resign. However, the furor eventually died down and is seldom heard about these days.

Nevertheless, Abe’s popularity seems to have taken a hit by the cherry blossom affair. Public opinion polls taken during the height of the viewing scandal indicate that his approval rating had dropped by seven percentage points from a high of 50 percent last summer.

There were other reasons besides cherry blossoms for the premier’s approval ratings to decline so much. The month of November, the time that he became Japan’s longest-serving premier, was mostly a bust for him. Parliament adjourned in early December without passing a bill to govern national referendums. The failure was especially galling to Abe since it was considered essential to passing his pet project, changing the constitution (which has to receive majority approval in a national referendum).

Abe has long wanted to promote a national debate over his desire to revise the US-drafted constitution, by, among other things, rewriting the war-renouncing Article 9 to formalize the legal position of the Self Defense Forces.

Some LDP leaders have suggested that Abe seek another three-year term – for a total of four – in order to see his pet project, confirming the legality of the armed forces, to completion. They also know that Abe is a proven vote-getter.

Cherry blossoms bloom for only about one week and have long become been a symbol of the ephemeral nature of life, here today gone tomorrow. If only scandals were so short-lived.