Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said Thursday he had invited between 100 and 200 supporters to attend this year’s edition of a publicly funded cherry blossom-viewing party at the center of a growing scandal.
Opposition parties have been stepping up criticism that the annual event, which is supposed to honor athletes, celebrities and others for their accomplishments, has been used to entertain supporters of ruling lawmakers as part of election campaigning.
When pressed to release the guest list during a parliamentary session, Aso said, “We don’t have those records.”
The annual cherry blossom-viewing event, held since 1952 at a Tokyo park, has come under intense scrutiny due to revelations that hundreds of supporters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were invited.
It has been revealed that the prime minister was allowed to invite about 1,000 people to this year’s event, while a combined 1,000 were recommended by Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Suga’s deputies.
The government plans to review the guest selection process, which has been criticized for its lack of transparency.
The handling of the list has also come under the spotlight as government officials have told the Diet that it had already been discarded.
When soliciting recommendations, the government made a request to avoid recommending the same people, Suga said Thursday. But he admitted that some people recommended by his side were on the guest list for many years.
“It wasn’t appropriate,” the top government spokesman said at a regular news conference.
Abe had said he was not involved in the guest selection process but admitted Wednesday that he expressed his “opinion” regarding who to invite when consulted by his office.
The apparent change in his statement prompted opposition party lawmakers to call for further explanation. “It only deepened our suspicion,” Kazuhiro Haraguchi, Diet affairs chief of the Democratic Party for the People, told reporters.
Under the Abe administration, the number of guests has grown and the prime minister himself has said he needs to reflect on the increase.