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Japan's Cabinet Office doctored list for controversial sakura party for submission to Diet

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (center) makes a speech at a cherry blossom-viewing party at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on April 13, 2019. (Pool photo)

The Cabinet Office concealed the governmental department that recommended a person for invitation to a tax-funded cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the spring of 2019 when it submitted its list of recommended people to the House of Councillors Budget Committee in November the same year, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

A Cabinet Office Personnel Division staffer had doctored the document to hide the information -- a fact that was not explained to the Budget Committee. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference Jan. 14 that he intended to deal a harsh reprimand to the parties that were involved, and said, "This was an extremely inappropriate way of handling the situation."

Of the lists put together in 2019 by various government ministries and agencies on the people they recommended as invitees to the sakura-viewing party, the portion that was doctored was for one person recommended under the category of "person of merit." In a copy of the original recommended invitee list that the Mainichi obtained under a freedom of information request, the recommending party for the person was listed as "Office of the Prime Minister's Official Residence, Cabinet Affairs Office," and an abbreviation for the office.

However, in the documents that the government submitted to the upper house budget committee board meeting on Nov. 22, 2019, both had been erased, leaving the category blank.

According to the Cabinet Office, this particular "person of merit" had been recommended for invitation to the party by the Cabinet Office's Personnel Division at the request of the Office of the Prime Minister's Official Residence.

At the news conference, Suga explained, "Ultimately, the party that recommended this person was the Personnel Division of the Cabinet Office, so any indication otherwise was erased and an explanation of that was not given (to the Diet)." Meanwhile, an official with the Cabinet Office said, "Having determined that leaving the notes as they were could invite the misunderstanding that the person came to the party under the recommendation quota of the Office of the Prime Minister's Official Residence, I whited out the information in question when preparing the documents for submission to the Diet."

However, at a House of Representatives Cabinet Committee meeting on Nov. 20, 2019, two days before the documents were submitted to the Diet, Cabinet Secretariat Councillor Shoji Onishi testified that there remained no lists of nominated guests in the Cabinet Affairs Office, including the Office of the Prime Minister's Official Residence. There is a possibility that the documents submitted to the Diet were altered to create consistency between the paperwork and Onishi's Diet testimony.

Additionally, it is unnatural that a guest nominated by the Office of the Prime Minister's Official Residence, which is a body within the Cabinet Secretariat, was placed in the recommending quota of the Cabinet Office, a completely separate organization. An official from the Cabinet Office explained that the "person of merit" in question was processed as being in the recommendation quota of the Cabinet Office's Personnel Division upon consultation "because the Office of the Prime Minister's Official Residence does not necessarily recommend an invitee every year, and since they only recommended one person this year." Suga told the press, "I have driven home to the Cabinet Office that it is to strictly refrain from such behavior."

A series of cases of sloppy handling of public documents concerning the sakura-viewing party by the Cabinet Office have come to light. As for the problem in which the guest list was not included in administrative document file management registers, Suga said, "In 2011 and 2012, the sakura-viewing party was canceled shortly beforehand, and the guest lists were disposed of without being added to administrative document file management registers. This (illegal) handling of the documents was casually continued in 2013 onward." This was a shift from his original explanation, in which he had said that the missing information had simply been "erroneous omissions at a clerical level."

As a general rule, the sakura-viewing party had been hosted every year by the prime minister using taxpayers' money. During the reign of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), it was canceled in 2011 due to the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunamis and ongoing nuclear crisis, and in 2012 due to a North Korean missile crisis.

"In 2011 and 2012, the Cabinet Office was making preparations to invite guests (to the sakura-viewing party)." Suga said. "According to the rules then, the list of invitees (that had been created) should have been listed in the administrative document file management registers." As for the invitee lists for the sakura-viewing parties that were held between 2013 and 2017 under the administration of Prime Minister Abe, Suga said, "The handling of the documents that was in violation of the Public Records and Archives Management Act had been casually passed down."

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama and Jun Aoki, Political News Department)

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