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Suspicions emerge in Japan over fairness of tenders for controversial Sakura party

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, poses for a snap shot with guests at an annual cherry blossom-viewing party he hosted at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on April 13, 2019. (Pool photo)
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie, center, pose for a snapshot at an annual cherry blossom-viewing party he hosted at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on April 13, 2019. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

TOKYO -- The Cabinet Office in Japan showed in advance the schedule of the 2019 cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to two companies that had previously won contracts relating to the event, sources familiar with the matter said.

The two companies made successful bids in subsequent tenders for the taxpayer-funded cherry blossom-viewing party held on April 13 that year.

The Cabinet Office defended the practice saying it wanted to learn lessons from problems with past functions, and denied that the move adversely affected the fairness of the tender process.

"We held the meeting at the site to specifically listen to what they noticed during the previous year's party," said an official at the Cabinet Office. "We simply told the businesses that we organize the event in the second or third week of April. We held similar consultations the year before, and there were no questions as to the fairness of the tenders."

However, experts have pointed out that the practice might have hindered the fair bidding process.

The Cabinet Office held consultations with employees at two companies, which had won contracts for the 2018 party, on Jan. 16, 2019 -- more than a month before the office announced that it would hold tenders for contracts relating to the 2019 function. The two companies are Tokyo-based JC Comsa Corp., which supplied food and drinks for the 2018 cherry blossom-viewing party, and Tokyo-based Murayama Inc., which set up the party site.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, shakes hands with guests at an annual cherry blossom-viewing party he hosted at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on April 13, 2019. (Pool photo)

Officials of the Cabinet Office showed the schedule of the 2019 cherry blossom-viewing party to workers at these two companies who gathered at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in the capital's Shinjuku Ward, the site of the function.

Tatsushi Nakagawa, director and chief operating officer at JC Comsa, denied that the company received any preferential treatment from the government.

"We explained where we set up tents as well as the flow of people at the site, and confirmed with government officials what should be improved," Nakagawa said. "I guess that the Cabinet Office provided us with certain information because of the prime minister's schedule. ... We never ask the Cabinet Office for information. We have followed fair procedures."

The Cabinet Office held a tender for a contract to supply food and drink at the 2019 party on Feb. 28 that year and bidding for a contract to set up the party site on March 14. JC Comsa and Murayama made successful bids again and the two companies signed contracts with the Cabinet Office on April 1.

The Cabinet Office had previously ordered food and drinks from multiple companies for cherry blossom-viewing parties. However, the office changed its policy and placed orders from a single company from 2013 on the grounds that it was difficult to facilitate cooperation between multiple food suppliers and that the change was necessary to improve safety.

In 2013, JC Comsa won a competitive tender in which the Cabinet Office evaluated bidders' plans including their menus and fees. The company received contracts from 2014 to 2019 and was the sole bidder in the tenders except those in 2015 and 2017.

Murayama won general competitive bidding for contracts to set up the party site, in which a business that offered the lowest offer won the contract, from 2013. The Cabinet Office has refused to disclose the number of bidders in the tender for a contract to set up the site because it is not legally required to disclose such information.

The opposition camp pointed out that a board member of JC Comsa has close ties with Prime Minister Abe's wife Akie.

In response, Taku Otsuka, state minister at the Cabinet Office, told a House of Representatives Cabinet Committee session on Nov. 20, 2019 that the office selected JC Comsa after "recognizing the superiority of the company by examining the company's experience in similar events."

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry holds a party between the minister and officials at diplomatic missions in Japan while the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) organizes a party on maritime safety day in July, but do not have any prior consultations with relevant businesses.

The farm ministry has held the party almost every year since 1981 with the aim of introducing Japanese cuisine to diplomats stationed in Japan. The ministry holds a competitive tender in which it selects a company to supply food for 150 to 200 attendees by evaluating bidders' plans.

An official of the ministry's International Policy Division, which organizes the function, said it never holds meetings with contractors in order to ensure fairness although the division occasionally asks such businesses about problems with the event that should be solved.

"We occasionally ask businesses by phone or email about what should be reflected on, but we never meet contractors. We make sure that suspicions aren't raised over the fairness of tenders," the official said.

The JCG selects a food supplier for its annual function, to which ambassadors of other countries are invited, through an open tender.

"We never have prior consultations with service providers and the successful bidder changes from year to year," a JCG official said.

The Imperial Household Agency explained that it receives estimates on the cost of providing food and drinks for attendees of the Imperial garden party from multiple companies although it does not hold a tender because the cost of the food and drinks is low.

Sophia University professor Shigeki Kusunoki, who is well versed in government procurement and has served as a member of national and local governments' bidding surveillance committees, points out that such prior consultations might have affected the fairness of the bidding.

"There are fears that businesses that learned of the schedule of the function ended up being at an advantageous position, hindering a fair bidding process. Although it's necessary to identify problems involving the event held every year, it's problematic for the Cabinet Office and service providers to continue to share internal information," he said.

Kusunoki then underscored the need for the government to disclose the minutes of meetings on the tenders for food supply contracts to increase transparency of the decision-making process.

(Japanese original by Tomotatsu Yamaguchi, Integrated Digital News Center, and Atsushi Matsumoto and Hiroyuki Takashima, City News Department)

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