Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared at House of Representatives Budget Committee meetings on Jan. 27 and 28, his first question-answer debate since November 2019 when he attended meetings of its counterpart committee in the House of Councillors. During the two-day deliberations in the lower house, opposition parties gave Abe a drubbing over allegations that his personal office used the publicly funded cherry blossom-viewing parties for his own benefit -- an issue which has been the subject of intense criticism.
During the meetings, Abe admitted that his office has "solicited a wide range of people to attend the parties and recommended" individuals to be invited. However, Abe told the panel that he "didn't perceive myself as soliciting" attendees, and that he "wasn't aware" that the number of invitees had been on the rise year by year.
If he meant that the practice does not constitute the use of the taxpayer-funded functions for private benefit as long as he does not perceive it as such, this is a flimsy explanation.
Furthermore, the prime minister's claim that "many local supporters had been invited by previous administrations" is nothing but a straw man argument. One aspect that has been called into question is that the number of attendees, which had stood at about 10,000, has increased by some 8,000 under the Abe administration. Abe attributed the increase to " longstanding customary practices" and "unclear criteria" for selecting guests, but he was simply shifting responsibility for the matter.
Critics have stated that the cherry blossom-viewing parties were used to boost Abe's bid to win the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s leadership election and increase support for LDP candidates in local assembly elections in his home constituency. If the prime minister dismisses this criticism, he has a responsibility to dispel the suspicions.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abe has repeatedly claimed that the lists of supporters his office had recommended as invitees to the parties have been discarded. If this is true, it would raise questions as to how his personal office managed information on supporters who attended the parties every year. Abe's claim is far from convincing.
The way the government manages official documents is becoming increasingly distorted as the administrative branch tries to shuffle its papers to match the prime minister's lame explanations. It is problematic that the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretariat have discarded the invitee lists, which should have been managed by these two bodies. What is yet more abnormal is that the executive branch has even refused to check the work history for the documents' management on a government computer system.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained to the Diet that it cannot check such information because "it's closely related to state secrets." However, one cannot help but wonder if the existence of disposal records for the invitee lists is a secret that the whole government needs to conceal.
Opposition parties are under fire from some critics for spending much of the time allocated to them for Diet questions to discussing the issue when the legislative branch is supposed to deal with priority issues such as countermeasures against the spread of a new coronavirus.
It is natural that the public is fed up with repeated discussion on who was invited to the functions and whether the invitee lists were really discarded. However, such Diet debate has given rise to suspicions that the Abe government is trying to turn Diet discussions on the issue into a mud wrestling match and obscure the scandal.
The prime minister's reluctance to provide a thorough explanation on the issue has contributed to the confusion within the political world.