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PM Abe admits role in selecting guests to controversial sakura party

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a House of Councillors plenary session on Nov. 20, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is seen during a House of Representatives Cabinet Committee meeting in Tokyo, on Nov. 20, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted during a Diet session on Nov. 20 that he played a role in the selection of guests to a controversial cherry blossom-viewing party. On the same day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a separate Diet session that about 1,000 people were invited to the gathering this year based on Abe's recommendations, including guests suggested by his wife Akie.

Prime Minister Abe has come under fire after an opposition party pointed out that the annual gathering hosted by the prime minister using taxpayers' money was exploited for his personal gain. The number of guests invited to the party this April based on the recommendations by the first couple accounted for roughly 6.6% of all invitees, while some 6,000 people, or some 40% of all guests, were recommended by those affiliated with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

In response to questions by Toru Miyamoto of the Japanese Communist Party, Suga apologized for the sloppy management of the party held annually at Tokyo's Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden during the Nov. 20 House of Representatives Cabinet Committee meeting, saying, "The number of guests grew due to ambiguous standards on whom to invite. I deeply regret such management (of the party)."

According to Suga, some 15,000 people were invited to this year's cherry blossom party. Of those, about 1,000 people were recommended by Abe, another 1,000 by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, Suga and deputy chief Cabinet secretaries and another 6,000 by LDP affiliates. An additional 1,000 -- including affiliates of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, special guests who contributed to international affairs and those in the fields of art and culture as well as press and former Diet members -- were also invited.

Meanwhile, about 6,000 people, including contributors in various fields, foreign ambassadors to Japan, Diet members and medal recipients, who were recommended by ministries and agencies based on the cherry party's outline, were invited to the occasion.

Also on Nov. 20, Abe told the House of Councillors plenary session that he personally gave his views on recommended guests when consulted by his office and that he "should have reflected on how the party had been organized."

He also revealed that a pre-party dinner held at a hotel in Tokyo on the eve of the cherry blossom event was hosted by Abe's personal supporters' association. He then claimed that his office staff made arrangements with the hotel but that it provided no bills, adding, "The association made absolutely no income (from the pre-party event) or spent anything on it so I see no need to include it in political funding reports.

The annual cherry blossom viewing party hosted by prime ministers began in 1952. In addition to guests who made contributions in their respective fields recommended by ministries and agencies, the Cabinet Office and Cabinet Secretariat had asked the prime minister, the chief Cabinet secretary and members of ruling parties, among others, to recommend potential guests. While guest numbers are roughly set at about 10,000 under the guidelines, they have grown under the Abe administration, and about 18,200 guests, including family members of the invitees, participated in this year's party.

Meanwhile, Hiroshige Seko, secretary-general of the LDP's upper house caucus, told reporters during a Nov. 19 news conference that his party sent out letters to its members in the chamber, who were facing re-election races this past summer, that said they could invite up to four groups of their choosing, including friends and affiliates of their supporters' associations, to the cherry blossom party.

Seko said, "I was briefed that, as a practice from the past, large quotas to invite guests had been allocated to those whose seats were to be contested (in the July upper house election)." A source close to the party revealed that the LDP has sent out similar letters regarding the cherry blossom party for at least 20 years.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Naoki Sugi and Shu Furukawa, Political News Department)

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