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Japan's Cherry Blossom Party Grows Into A Political Scandal For Prime Minister


Shinzo Abe became Japan's longest serving prime minister last month. He's also embroiled by the latest in a series of scandals involving allegations of cronyism, cover-ups and misuse of state funds. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo, the scandals have marred what is likely to be Abe's final term in office.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Each spring for most of the past 50-plus years, the government has hosted a party where guests in kimonos and suits gather to raise cups of sake, rub elbows with politicians and enjoy the fleeting beauty of Tokyo's cherry blossoms. But opposition lawmakers allege that Prime Minister Abe has used these events to reward his own political supporters.

Last month, opposition Communist Party lawmaker Tomoko Tamura grilled Abe at a parliamentary hearing.


TOMOKO TAMURA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: Mr. Prime Minister, please answer the question. Only you can answer this, she said, waving her hand at him forcefully. In an interview in her office, Tamura explains why she held Abe's feet to the fire.

TAMURA: (Through interpreter) I was asking about invitations sent by his office, but he tried to get some other official to answer. I thought this was wrong, so I pressed him hard.

KUHN: The cherry blossom parties have bloomed in size. And this year, the government spent more than half a million dollars on some 15,000 guests.

TAMURA: (Through interpreter) I found it was because the prime minister was inviting his own election supporters, as many as he pleased. The cherry blossom party is funded by taxpayers' money. This means that he was virtually buying votes.

KUHN: An opposition lawmaker asked for the guest list. But the same day, bureaucrats fed the list into a gigantic shredder, which lawmakers later visited.


KUHN: Abe claimed that it was just a coincidence and he had done nothing wrong. This is the third major scandal involving allegations of cronyism and cover-ups to engulf the Abe administration in as many years. Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano says that while most Japanese don't trust Abe's explanations about the scandals, many have become too numb to care.

KOICHI NAKANO: There's a growing sense of a new normal being created. You know, Abe survived one scandal after another. And so some people think that, you know, what's the point of complaining?

BRAD GLOSSERMAN: The garden party, who was on the guest list, you're rewarding your friends - it wasn't like he was giving them bags of money.

KUHN: Brad Glosserman is deputy director of the Tama University Center for Rule-making Strategies in Tokyo. He argues that since his second term began in 2012, Abe has kept his economy out of recession and deftly managed an unpredictable U.S. president. But he's also presided over what he says is a corrosion of the political process.

GLOSSERMAN: These scandals emerge when you don't really have to worry about an opposition, when you don't have to worry about playing by the rules because there's nobody who's going to call you to account.

KUHN: Japan's weak and fragmented opposition parties are trying to hold Abe to account. They called today for the current session of parliament to be extended so they can continue investigating the scandal.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.