Japan's PM cancels cherry blossom party after outcry over florid spending

Daniel Hurst in Tokyo
Photograph: Toru Yamanaka/AFP via Getty Images

In a bid to contain a blossoming scandal over lavish flower-viewing parties, Japan’s prime minister has cancelled next year’s annual taxpayer-funded festivity.

Shinzo Abe’s move to shut down the 2020 party comes after criticism that the cost of the cherry blossom event had spiralled and has been misused for political purposes.

Hosted by prime ministers almost every year since 1952, the springtime social event was originally meant to honour sportspeople, celebrities and other citizens who have excelled in their fields, but critics say it is increasingly used to reward the government’s political supporters. Voters from Abe’s constituency in Yamaguchi prefecture have even been offered bundled travel packages to go to Tokyo and enjoy river cruises on the weekend of the festivities, the Asahi Shimbun reported.

“Mixing personal affairs and public activities is something that should never be done by a prime minister who has political authority,” the Mainichi newspaper said in an editorial, adding: “There is no denying the fact that the ruling bloc as a whole has become numb to intertwining public and private activities.”

More than 18,000 people attended the festivities at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyoen national garden in April this year, about 4,500 more than five years ago. The planned budget of 57 million yen (£408,000) for the 2020 event represented a doubling of the cost since 2014, local media reported. Abe cancelled it after opposition parties announced a taskforce to investigate whether public funds were used for private purposes in a potential violation of electoral law.

The government said it would review the event’s scale and invitation criteria but insisted the higher cost was due to counter-terrorism measures.

The issue arose a few weeks after two ministers resigned from Abe’s cabinet amid accusations they gave constituents gifts such as melons and potatoes in possible breach of electoral law. Abe, who has withstood more damaging scandals in the past, is due next week to assume the record of longest-serving Japanese prime minister.