Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was grilled by opposition lawmakers Wednesday over whether he made inaccurate claims at the Diet last year about a potential breach of laws on gift-giving by his predecessor.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is under fire after sources told local media his office helped cover the costs of annual dinner parties for supporters, in a possible violation of funding and election laws and in direct conflict with Abe’s vehement denials at the Diet last year.
Media outlets including public broadcaster NHK have said Abe’s office helped cover a shortfall of about ¥8 million over the last five years of his tenure to hold the parties at high grade hotels, citing people close to the former prime minister.
Tokyo prosecutors are analyzing hotel documents that suggest Abe’s office partly subsidized the receptions, and have conducted a voluntary questioning of Abe’s former aides, media reported Monday.
In interviews with NHK, sources close to Abe said staff members working for him had told their former boss, when asked last year whether the office had partially footed the bills, that the ticket sales had covered the costs when, in fact, they had not.
Politicians in Japan are forbidden to provide anything to constituents that could be construed as a gift. The rule is so strict that one Cabinet minister quit in 2014 after distributing paper fans during the summer.
Suga has been linked to the scandal, which dogged Abe in the final year of his tenure, as he was the then-prime minister’s right-hand man during his 2012 to 2020 term.
Suga told a parliamentary committee Wednesday that he had “always checked in advance with former Prime Minister Abe” on his responses about the matter, deflecting the blame for any potentially inaccurate statements.
“I will refrain from commenting further, as it involves the activities of an investigative force,” he added, when pressed further about inconsistent statements in parliament.
During parliamentary sessions last year in which he was grilled by opposition lawmakers, Abe vehemently denied his office had subsidized parties.
On Tuesday, Abe said he was aware of the accusations and promised that his office would “fully cooperate” with Tokyo prosecutors who are looking into the matter, but declined to comment further.
Yukio Edano, leader of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said Tuesday the media revelations meant Abe had lied in parliament when he denied his office subsidized parties.
“Prime Minister Suga was also the ringleader of the Abe administration, in his position as chief Cabinet secretary, and he can’t escape that responsibility,” Edano said, according to NHK.
Abe, the nation’s longest-serving prime minister, stepped down in September due to health issues, but has stayed on as a Lower House lawmaker.
The opposition had demanded he address the accusations during a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday, but the ruling Liberal Democratic Party refused to concede to the request, saying it was “unreasonable.”
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