Deliberations in the House of Representatives Budget Committee are getting into full swing. What has stood out are the answers given by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that anyone would think were unnatural to questions about the controversial government-hosted sakura-viewing party.
Abe explained in a Budget Committee meeting that for a party held by the prime minister's supporters' group on the eve of the sakura-viewing party, every year, each participant entered into a "contract" with the hotel where the party took place in which they paid a fee of 5,000 yen.
The prime minister argued that his office in his home constituency of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan, was merely an intermediary for the two parties, and that Abe's local office and the hotel only reached an "agreement" on conditions, such as the price per head and what food would be served.
However, last year's party was a massive undertaking, a political gathering in which approximately 800 of Abe's supporters and others got together at a luxury hotel in Tokyo. There is no way any participant believed that they were in a contract with the hotel themselves.
Abe stated that "it was very common" for politicians' supporters' groups to hold social gatherings at, for example, broiled meat restaurants, and arrange to have participants pay a flat fee. But to speak of small-scale get-togethers at the same level as 800-person political gatherings is deceptive.
The opposition parties are pursuing the possibility that the prime minister's camp covered the difference between what the pre-party's participants paid and the actual fee the hotel charged for the pre-party. If that is indeed the case, there is a possibility that the prime minister's camp's actions amounted to influence buying or acts of endowment, both of which are prohibited by the Public Offices Elections Act.
If the prime minister wants to dispel all doubt, all he has to do is gather his receipts and detailed bills and disclose his office's income and outlays. We cannot help but suspect the reason he repeats contrived responses to questions in the Diet is because he has something to hide.
If his office is the party that entered into a contract with the hotel, that fact must be noted in his political funding report. However, if the pre-party's participants were the ones who entered into contracts with the hotel, Abe is not required to keep any records. The latter is what the prime minister is trying to argue took place, but that argument won't work.
If such a thing were to be permitted, that would create a loophole in the Political Funds Control Act, which obliges the reporting of income and outlays resulting from political activities.
The opposition bloc criticized Abe's creation and use of this loophole as "the Abe Method." Meanwhile, the prime minister declared that if other politicians did not report income and outlays for similar political activities, "there would be no problem if it were conducted in the same way." This is akin to the government recommending a method for circumventing the law.
Prime Minister Abe's statement in the Diet that "We were recruiting (people to participate in the party) far and wide but were not recruiting," does not make any sense. He's no longer able to explain himself.
There has been criticism toward the opposition parties for pursuing the "sakura" scandal even as the country faces various important policy challenges, such as measures against the new coronavirus. But isn't it the prime minister's insistence on repeating failed reasoning that is interfering with Diet debate?