Japan’s cherry blossom scandal starts to drag down PM Shinzo Abe’s support

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie pose with guests during a cherry blossom viewing party at Shinjuku Gyoen park in Tokyo, Japan, April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-hoon. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

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TOKYO, Dec 2, 2019, Bloomberg. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saw his support rating slide amid questions about whether he rewarded supporters with invitations to a publicly funded cherry blossom-viewing party, The Straits Times reported.

Support for the Cabinet fell 6 percentage points in November to hit 42 per cent, according to a poll published on Monday (Dec 2) in the Mainichi newspaper, the lowest since Mr Abe reshuffled his ministers two months ago. Respondents cited the cherry blossom scandal, which opposition lawmakers have used to slow the ruling party’s legislative agenda, as a source of their displeasure.

The opposition has accused Mr Abe of misdirecting public funds to supporters from his home constituency by giving them invitations to exclusive Tokyo package tours to attend an annual party at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

The scandal has deepened amid questions about whether organised crime figures were among the attendees and whether crucial documents including the guest list were inappropriately shredded.

While Mr Abe has endured worse controversies to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister last month, the cherry blossom flap is one of several involving favoured treatment of political supporters to rattle the Cabinet in recent weeks.

Separate campaign finance scandals have already prompted the resignations of two Cabinet ministers since Mr Abe appointed the new government in September.

The most recent cherry blossom event in April attracted about 18,000 people and photographs on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office show a smiling Mr Abe posing with celebrities, some of them dressed in colourful kimonos.

Mr Abe’s government has said it would not hold the event next year, breaking an almost 70-year run.

A decline in support could influence whether Mr Abe decides to call an election early next year before Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympics.

The government said that the decision to shred the guest list had nothing to do with the looming questions about it in Parliament. Some 72 per cent of those surveyed in the Mainichi poll said they could not accept that explanation, compared with 13 per cent who said they could.

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