National

A fresh scandal blossoms as Abe gets set to become longest-serving prime minister

JIJI

As he prepares to break the all-time record on Wednesday for days served in office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is facing fresh allegations that he used a government event to entertain supporters and violated the election law.

At the center of the latest allegations is the annual cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by the prime minister. The event, designed to recognize the achievements and merits of people in the cultural, entertainment, sports and political fields, has taken place almost every spring since 1952.

Abe is under fire for allegedly inviting an increasing number of his supporters to the publicly funded party.

At a House of Councilors committee meeting on Nov. 8, Abe denied he was involved in drafting the guest lists, saying the Cabinet Secretariat and the Cabinet Office were responsible. But with doubts mounting over his claim, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced last week that the government will cancel next spring’s party and review the selection process.

Abe is no stranger to cronyism scandals. In recent years, his administration has been suspected of giving preferential treatment to two school operators — the Kake Educational Institution (Kake Gakuen), headed by a close friend of the prime minister, and Moritomo Gakuen, a nationalist entity that was promoted by his wife, Akie.

Abe is also facing an allegation that his personal office partially covered the cost of holding a dinner for the supporters allegedly invited to the cherry blossom party — a potential violation of the public offices election law.

A letter the office sent to the backers allegedly invited to the April 2017 party showed that the Prime Minister’s Office arranged for them to take five different Tokyo tours starting from and ending at an airport in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Abe’s constituency. One such tour took participants to Tokyo Skytree, while another included a stroll through the popular Asakusa district.

The dinner, held in Tokyo at the Hotel New Otani and joined by Abe and his wife, was part of each tour, and charged a participation fee of ¥5,000. The opposition camp is arguing that the fee was suspiciously low for a dinner party at the hotel.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Abe expressed his willingness to give explanations about the matter before the Diet. The government should fulfill its accountability if such a request is made by the legislative branch, he said.

As for the dinner on the eve of the cherry blossom party, Abe said his office “managed it appropriately.” He also stressed that the participants paid for everything, including tour fees and airfare.

“All the costs of travel and accommodation, including for a dinner party, are shouldered by guests,” Abe told reporters.

But even so, Abe’s office may be charged with violating the political funds control law if it is found to have failed to properly report income from and spending for the events linked to the cherry blossom party, pundits said.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties are poised to step up pressure on Abe to respond to these suspicions.

“The suspicions against the prime minister are deepening,” Jun Azumi, CDP parliamentary affairs chief, told reporters on Thursday.

In August, Abe became the longest-serving prime minister since the end of the war, overtaking the late Eisaku Sato, a great uncle of Abe, who was in office for a total of 2,798 days.

Abe is poised to break the all-time record of 2,886 days held by the late Taro Katsura.