This year’s parliamentary debates over key policy issues started Wednesday, as top opposition leaders grilled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over mainly three topics: A controversial taxpayer-funded cherry blossom-viewing party, the scandal over the legalization of casinos and a possibly dangerous dispatch of a Maritime Self-Defense Force unit to the Middle East amid high tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Wednesday’s question-and-answer session at the Lower House suggested that the opposition is likely to focus on the three issues in a bid to delay enactment of the fiscal 2020 budget draft, which the government will try to pass through both the Lower and Upper houses by the end of March, when the current fiscal year ends.
Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano went after Abe on allegations of cronyism and favoritism over an annual taxpayer-funded cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by the prime minister. Edano now leads the largest opposition group at the Diet that combines several parties.
Edano regarded the recruitment of a large number of people to take part in the party by members of Abe’s association of supporters as questionable. About 800 constituents in his local district, Edano said, were invited and had free food and drinks. He quizzed the eligibility for being invited and whether the recruitment is tantamount to buying votes, a violation of the election law.
The scandal also exposed the sloppiness of document management within the government. When a lawmaker previously requested records on who was specifically invited, and for what reason, to last year’s party, government officials said the guest list was shredded immediately after the inquisition.
“About these scandals, the prime minister has avoided giving an explanation rather than giving a satisfactory explanation for a large number of citizens,” claimed Edano.
“Japanese society’s morale will continue to get worse if you remain in a position regarded with suspicion. We strongly demand you resign with good grace.”
Abe in response has overall stuck to his previous explanation. Abe maintained a tough stance all throughout Wednesday’s session, probably encouraged by still relatively high approval rates in the latest media polls.
Acknowledging that his office solicited and recommended people in his district to take part in the party “based on a request by the Cabinet Secretariat,” he said no subsidy was paid to cover the participants’ costs.
“I recognize the number of participants has soared because the invitation standards were ambiguous,” Abe said. “On the other hand, the point that the action is against the Public Offices Election Act isn’t applicable since the Cabinet Secretariat and the Cabinet Office collate invited guests per a recommender in the end.”
The latest NHK opinion poll taken in January showed Abe’s approval rate only dipped by 1 point from December to 44 percent. The disapproval rate was up only by 1 point to 38 percent. A high approval rate has long been the reason Abe has maintained great political clout over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner Komeito, which have maintained a supermajority in both Lower and Upper chambers.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party for the People leader Yuichiro Tamaki pressed Abe for freezing the government’s policy for so-called integrated resorts that will feature casinos, in wake of the arrest of a former vice minister at the Cabinet Office who was in charge of promoting it.
In December, LDP lawmaker Tsukasa Akimoto was arrested on charges of accepting ¥3 million in cash in 2017 and about ¥760,000 for a trip to Hokkaido in 2018 from Chinese company 500.com.
Earlier this month, Akimoto, who quit the LDP after his arrest, was indicted and re-arrested on charges of accepting an additional ¥2 million in cash as well as a ¥1.5 million trip to China in 2017 from the same company. He denies any wrongdoing.
Abe took a swipe at Tamaki’s call and noted the integrated resorts feature facilities other than casinos like shopping malls.
During the session, at times, the prime minister did not hold himself back, countering Edano on real wages growth and claiming that deflation was aggravated under the CDP’s predecessor, the Democratic Party of Japan.
In one moment, he even exhibited a relaxed frame of mind when a ruling block member ridiculed a jeer from an opposition lawmaker, screaming “Don’t bite your tongue when jeering for a long time.”
Opposition party leaders also questioned the prime minister on a Middle East mission that will see the dispatch of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Takanami, a 4,650-ton destroyer. Two P-3C surveillance patrol airplanes have already been sent to the waters off Oman and Yemen.
While opposition lawmakers have criticized the move as a constitutional loophole, Abe again stressed the necessity of the dispatch as a way to protect ships tied to Japanese interests, noting that the country heavily depends on energy resources from the region.
During Wednesday’s session, Tamaki asked Abe whether it is appropriate to invite Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a state guest in April despite the country’s provocative actions in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, as well as human rights violations against Uighur minorities. Abe contended that he has no plans to reverse it.
During the same session Edano also reproached Abe’s responsibility for appointing two ministers who later stepped down over accused of violating campaign finance law: Isshu Sugawara who led the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; and Katsuyuki Kawai who was the head of the justice ministry.
Abe expressed remorse for naming them as ministers but declined to comment further, prompting jeers from the opposition.
The cherry blossom-viewing party has been hosted by the prime minister since 1952. During the Abe administration, the number of invitees spiked by roughly 5,000 to about 15,000.
Of those guests, Abe has admitted he was involved with selecting up to 1,000 and that the ruling LDP was given a quota of roughly 6,000 people to invite.