• Kyodo

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The office of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is suspected of covering a shortfall of about ¥8 million spent on dinner functions held for supporters during his time as leader, a possible violation of the political funds control law, sources with knowledge of the situation said Tuesday.

Prosecutors have questioned one of Abe's secretaries and multiple other supporters over allegations that his office illegally paid an amount for each dinner function held annually between 2013 and 2019 at Tokyo hotels.

The questioning came after a criminal complaint was filed in May against Abe, the state-paid secretary and his fund manager by lawyers and scholars, claiming they broke the law by failing to report the payment of the difference between the total costs of each party and the contributions paid by attendees.

The approximately ¥8 million in question was allegedly spent over five years from 2015 for the dinner functions at two hotels in the capital where the total costs exceeded ¥20 million, far larger than the amount collected from ticket sales.

Each event was organized by an Abe supporter group on the eve of a publicly funded annual cherry blossom viewing party, itself another cause of controversy for the former leader as he has been criticized for inviting hundreds of his backers to the taxpayer-funded events.

Banquet attendees, many of whom were voters in Abe's Yamaguchi Prefecture constituency, were charged ¥5,000 each, even though such events at the five-star hotels normally cost approximately ¥11,000 or more per head. About 800 people went to the 2019 event.

Receipts from the hotels indicate that Abe's office covered the shortfall, according to the sources.

The complaint also alleged that Abe and the two others violated the election law by contributing to covering the cost of the gathering, saying it is tantamount to buying votes.

Abe denied in parliament his office covered the shortfall. However, the special investigative team at the Tokyo Prosecutor's Office has been looking into hotel documentation regarding the dinner functions.

On Monday, Abe's office released a statement saying it is "cooperating with the investigation and sincerely dealing" with the matter but did not elaborate further.

Jun Azumi, Diet affairs chief of the major opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters that Abe should explain his allegations in the Diet on Wednesday.

Since Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was chief Cabinet secretary under Abe, the questioning of the secretary by prosecutors and unfolding developments could deal a blow to the new leader.

Suga said upon taking office in mid-September that he would not continue the tradition of holding state-funded cherry blossom viewing parties.

The annual cherry blossom viewing event, which began in 1952 to honor people such as athletes and celebrities for their accomplishments, came under fire when Abe was prime minister since it was revealed that hundreds of his supporters were invited.

For years, guests at the cherry blossom event were traditionally selected based on recommendations from politicians.

Abe had faced criticism from opposition parties claiming the prime minister has used the party for personal gain. Both the number of guests and the amount spent by the government had been rising under Abe.

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