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PM Abe's 'private citizen' wife could recommend who to invite to gov't-funded sakura party

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (center left) and his wife, Akie Abe, pose for a photo with guests at a sakura-viewing party at Tokyo's Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden on April 13, 2019. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie recommended guests to invite to the annual sakura-viewing party hosted by the prime minister, it has emerged.

In March 2017, the Abe administration passed a Cabinet decision stating that Akie was a private citizen, and not a public figure. This took place amid a scandal over the heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which was in the process of building a new elementary school of which Akie was at one point named honorary principal. She also had a government staff member assigned to assist her in her everyday life. Is it not a mixing of private and public interests for a private citizen to be allowed a say in who is invited to a government-sponsored event?

"There have been reports of people who merely exchanged business cards with Mrs. Abe receiving invitations to the cherry blossom-viewing party. Is there an invitation 'quota' for Mrs. Abe?" asked Japanese Communist Party legislator Toru Miyamoto during a House of Representatives Cabinet Committee on Nov. 20.

"No," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in response.

Miyamoto went on to say there are many posts online in which people claimed that Akie invited them to the event. He asked, "When the Abe office (in his constituency in the western prefecture of Yamaguchi) was coordinating who would be coming to the party, were Akie's recommendations taken into consideration?"

This time, Shoji Onishi, a Cabinet Secretariat councillor, responded, "In the process of the Abe office soliciting far and wide people who wished to attend the party, Mrs. Abe provided some recommendations."

In other words, the chief Cabinet secretary said that Akie had no part in selecting who would be invited to the sakura-viewing party, while a councillor in the Cabinet secretariat said she did. Miyamoto declared, "Publicly, you've said that Mrs. Abe had no quota for invitations, but in reality, she had invited people connected to her through the Abe office."

In response, Suga said, "The reality was just as the councillor said, but I have confirmed with Mrs. Abe that she was not at all involved in the relevant process of recommending people."

"The answers (given by Suga and Onishi) do not match up," Miyamoto protested, to which Onishi said, "I have been told that in the process of the Abe office soliciting far and wide people who wished to attend the party, Mrs. Abe provided some recommendations. However, I understand that there was no specific 'quota' per se." He went on to explain, "The chief Cabinet secretary's (earlier) response was to a question from Representative (Miyamoto) that we were notified of in advance, about whether staff assigned to the prime minister's wife was involved in the guest recommendation process."

The breakdown of the approximately 15,000 guests became clear at this meeting. It was stated that recommendations from the prime minister numbered around 1,000 people, and that Akie's recommendations were apparently included in this figure.

Akie Abe is known for her involvement in a range of projects, including owning a Japanese-style "izakaya" pub that serves dishes made of domestically grown organic produce, supporting education in Myanmar, and hosting seminars on women's empowerment.

In March 2017, House of Representatives lawmaker Seiji Osaka of the then Democratic Party (DP) asked in a written question directed to the Cabinet, about doubts that existed about the legal position of the prime minister's wife. He asked whether she a public figure or a private citizen. The government, in response, passed a Cabinet decision that she was a private citizen and not a public figure. This, then, raises the question, how can a person whom the government has decided was a private citizen, recommend who to invited to a government-sponsored party?

The aforementioned lawmaker Miyamoto criticized at the Nov. 20 Cabinet Committee meeting, "If whether one has met with the prime minister's wife is the criteria for participation in the event, then the prime minister and his wife are using taxpayers' money as their own personal funds."

Meanwhile, Ikuo Gonoi, a political science professor at Takachiho Univeristy, said, "There has been criticism that the Abes have put taxpayers' money to private use or that they have mixed the private with the public, but I think they've gone as far as 'putting the nation to private use.'" He also strongly emphasized the need to reveal how much of a "quota" Akie Abe actually had in the guest invitation process.

(Japanese original by Yoshiaki Ebata, Integrated Digital News Center)

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