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Party on eve of PM Abe's controversial sakura-viewing function omitted from funding reports

A receipt for 5,000 yen that was issued by a hotel for a pre-party for the annual cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by the prime minister is seen here in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on Nov. 13, 2019. (Part of the photo has been blurred.)

A pre-party held on the evening before the annual cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not listed in political funding reports, and opposition parties are speculating that the prime minister's camp may have shouldered a portion of the event's cost.

The taxpayer-funded cherry blossom-viewing parties have recently come under scrutiny, partly due to a lack of transparency in the selection of guests -- resulting in the cancellation of next year's event.

The fee for the pre-party was set at 5,000 yen, and the Mainichi Shimbun confirmed a receipt with the name of the hotel where the party took place. The "party plans" that this hotel advertises on its website say "stand-up party, 11,000 yen per person and up," and the 5,000-yen fee is lower than the going rate in the industry. Asked whether the party was indeed held at 5,000 yen per head as the receipt says, a hotel public relations representative told the Mainichi, "We cannot answer anything that has to do with the privacy with our guests."

Under the Political Funds Control Act, political groups connected with Diet members must list the contents of expenditures (excluding labor costs) that exceed 10,000 yen per case. However, if a travel agency is managing and arranging an event, as is believed to be the case with a tour that included the pre-party, no such requirement exists.

Opposition parties are suggesting that the pre-party cost may have been more than 5,000 yen per head, and that the prime minister's camp may have shouldered the difference.

Hiroshi Kamiwaki, a constitutional law professor at Kobe Gakuin University who is well versed in political funds, says that if in fact the prime minister's camp paid for the difference between the actual cost per head and the 5,000 yen that each participant paid the hotel for the pre-party, there's a possibility that it violated the Public Offices Election Act, which prohibits acts of endowment to voters in one's constituency. Some suggest that political funding reports by the prime minister's political organizations make no mention of the costs of the pre-party to hide this violation. The opposition bloc is poised to pursue this point going forward.

As of the end of 2018, there were six political groups connected to Prime Minister Abe that were registered with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the Yamaguchi Prefectural Election Administration Commission. However, in the three years up to 2017, there were no political funding reports in which there was a clear indication of expenditures related to the pre-sakura-viewing party.

"It's doubtful that the venue fee of a famous hotel can be covered by just the participation dues that attendees paid for the party," Kamiwaki said. "Since the event is called 'Shinzo Abe supporters' group sakura-viewing pre-party,' it can be seen as an event hosted by the prime minister's supporting organization, in which case, income and outlays should be listed in funding reports. As long as there are doubts about an event that he himself attended, Prime Minister Abe must provide a sufficient explanation."

Testimony from people connected to the event have shown that the prime minister's supporters from his home constituency participated in the sakura-viewing event as a package tour that included transport to Tokyo, accommodations and sightseeing.

According to the prime minister's activities that are disclosed to the media, on the day before the sakura-viewing events, there have been dinner parties titled "Shinzo Abe supporters' group sakura-viewing pre-party," which the prime minister has attended. The venues have been famous hotel banquet halls, and the one that has been used the most in the past five years has a capacity of some 500 people in the case of stand-up dinner parties.

Among the people who have taken part in the pre-party and posted about it on social media, one characterized the event as "a spectacular bash in which around 400 guests from the (Yamaguchi Prefecture) cities of Shimonoseki and Nagato, as well as from inside and outside Yamaguchi Prefecture spend time with the prime minister and the first lady." Another poster said, "There was quite a bit of food."

The package tour takes the form of an arrangement by a local travel agency, and a former Shimonoseki Municipal Assembly member who participated in the past said, "We went to Tokyo by plane, and we got around Tokyo via chartered bus. Our hotel was already set for us, and the fees came out of our own pockets, which we paid directly to the hotel and the travel agency."

However, the contact information of Prime Minister Abe's personal office in Yamaguchi Prefecture was listed on the announcement for the tour. The former council member said that they were contacted by the office with a verbal invitation to go on the tour, and when they agreed, they received the written announcement.

Meanwhile, there are funding reports under Abe's supporters' group's name in which income and outlays can be confirmed. According to the funding report of the prime minister's fund-management organization, Shinwa-kai, a "Shinzo Abe supporters' group breakfast" is held three times a year at a hotel in Tokyo. It brings in approximately 22 million to 26 million yen. The cost of renting the venue can be confirmed as being between approximately 1.3 million yen and 1.5 million yen.

The Mainichi sent written questions to the prime minister's lawmaker's office about the host of the pre-party and the accounting process for events, but did not receive a response by 8 p.m. on Nov. 14.

(Japanese original by Rokuhei Sato, Shimonoseki Bureau, and Taku Soda, City News Department)

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