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Review urged of guest list for Japan gov't-funded event amid criticism

This photo taken in April 2017 shows a cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan's ruling coalition agreed Wednesday on the need to review the criteria for guests attending a publicly-funded cherry-blossom viewing event, amid criticism that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has used it to entertain his supporters.

The opposition bloc has taken issue with Abe over the annual event, held every April at a Tokyo park since 1952 to honor people for their accomplishments. Under his administration, the number of guests and the amount of money spent by the government on the gathering have been on the rise.

Toshihiro Nikai and Tetsuo Saito -- the secretary generals of the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito -- shared the view during a meeting in Tokyo that that a review of the selection process is necessary.

The agreement came a day after Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga suggested the government would consider looking into the matter, as opposition parties criticized what they saw as the murky 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 a list of people to be invited based on recommendations from each ministry and agency.

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

Still, the education ministry revealed 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 a parliamentary 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 an 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, known for its cherry blossoms.

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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