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Budget draft for Abe's controversial sakura party was based on underestimated figures

In this April 2017 file photo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center left, and his wife Akie, center right, pose for photos with guests at a cherry blossom-viewing party at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Tender notices that the Japanese government issued in February and March for the supply of food, drinks and other costs relating to a controversial cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe allowed for far more participants than were assumed in budget deliberations in the Diet, an examination of related figures has shown.

In the Diet, legislators deliberated the event based on a budget bill that underestimated the event's costs and participant figures. Then five days after the budget bill was passed, a catering business contract was formed for more than twice the drafted figure.

Such "underreporting" had continued every year since fiscal 2014, suggesting that those organizing the event had made light of Diet deliberations.

In a news conference on Nov. 13, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga abruptly announced that the party would not be held next year. The event, held annually at Tokyo's Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, had come under fire for its lack of transparency in the selection of guests and the fact that many of Abe's supporters from his home constituency had been invited.

Existing records show that about 13,700 people attended the party in 2014. In 2019, the figure increased to about 18,200 people. But when the Cabinet Office compiled budgets for the event, they did not reflect a rise in the preceding year's number of participants, and in the initial budget drafts for fiscal 2015 through 2019, just 8,000 participants were incorporated into calculations each year -- far below the actual number. The amount of related expenses set aside for the event each year was 17.666 million yen.

In spite of these figures, when tender notices were issued on Feb. 28 this year for the supply of food and drinks, and on March 14 for preparation of the party venue, the envisaged number of participants was set at "around 18,000 people." Participants had been solicited between February and March, and it is possible that the government had already made estimates for a large number of attendees.

An official with the Cabinet Office commented, "The spouses of invited guests and their family members who are minors also take part, so it's hard to get an idea of the actual number of participants. When the budget bill is drawn up, we allocate the lowest necessary expenses, providing the same sum each fiscal year. We are not deviating from the Public Accounting Act and there are no problems."

In its budgetary request for next fiscal year, approximately 16,000 participants had been predicted -- double the number previously estimated -- while the requested amount was 57.288 million yen. Suga had explained that the increase was for "beefing up counterterrorism measures and taking steps for easing traffic congestion and so on." The increased amount included the budget for food and drinks.

In a news conference on the morning of Nov. 14, Suga said he did not think that the party would be abolished altogether at this stage, noting that it dated back to 1952, and stressed that those invited included foreign ambassadors to Japan.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama and Kazuhiko Hori, Political News Department)

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