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'Discarded' documents on controversial sakura party were actually retained: Cabinet Office

Legislators grill a Cabinet Office official over the reported discovery of documents on taxpayer-funded cherry blossom-viewing parties that were supposed to have been discarded, during a hearing of the opposition camp's fact-finding panel in the Diet Building on Jan. 21, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Several official documents on controversial taxpayer-funded cherry blossom-viewing parties held between 2011 and 2013 that were supposedly discarded because their retention periods had ended, were actually preserved, the Cabinet Office has divulged.

An official of the Cabinet Office reported the finding to legislators representing ruling and opposition camps at the House of Councillors Budget Committee on Jan. 21, and offered an apology.

The office also released documents giving a breakdown of the numbers of people invited to the functions from 2014 to 2019. Printouts of these documents were found to have been kept on file at the office's General Affairs Division.

Opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), are grilling the government over allegations that lists of invitees and other key documents may still be retained.

The annual parties are controversial because many members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's supporting organization in his home constituency in the western Japan prefecture of Yamaguchi were invited to the functions, which he hosted. Also, the former head of a company that went under after engaging in a malicious pyramid marketing scheme allegedly received an invitation to the 2015 party.

The documents from 2011 and 2013 found at the Cabinet Office's General Affairs Division included those which gave an outline of the functions, and contracts with catering and other businesses. There were also documents sanctioning matters related to the functions and written requests to other ministries and agencies.

At a hearing of an opposition camp fact-finding panel on the parties, an official of the Cabinet Office in charge of the matter said, "We previously thought the documents had been discarded because their retention periods had passed. We had provided our explanation (to the Diet) on the assumption that the documents had in fact been discarded.

"We ended up responding to the matter without sufficiently searching for the documents. It was extremely inappropriate," the official told opposition legislators during the hearing.

When an opposition party legislator questioned whether lists of those invited to these parties were included in the same file, the official replied, "We clearly deny that."

At a news conference on Jan. 21, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga pointed out that the Cabinet Office's handling of the documents was inappropriate. "They failed to carry out a proper check," he said.

However, he denied that the practice constituted a violation of the Public Records and Archives Management Act.

Documents giving a breakdown of the numbers of invitees to parties from 2014 to 2019 show that 15,420 people were invited to the 2019 function. A total of 8,894 people were listed in a category titled, "People of merit in various fields (the prime minister, etc.)."

The government has earlier explained that about 1,000 people were invited to the 2019 party under the recommendation quota for Prime Minister Abe and another 1,000 under the quotas of Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and the chief and deputy chief Cabinet secretaries. Some 6,000 were invited under the quota for those linked to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). These may be included in the 8,894 "people of merit."

The number of those invited to the parties under the category of people of merit has been on an upward trend -- 7,385 in 2015, 7,605 in 2016, 7,595 in 2017 and 9,494 in 2018. The increases may largely be attributable to a suspected rise in the number of those invited under the prime minister's quota.

In 2018, Abe was re-elected to a third term as president of the LDP, allowing him to stay in power.

(Japanese original by Shinya Hamanaka, Political News Department)

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