Last week, news broke that the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office was questioning a secretary of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and numerous supporters over allegations that Abe’s office illegally paid out over ¥9 million to make up the costs of dinner parties at Tokyo hotels.

The allegations originally surfaced in November 2019, but Abe denied any wrongdoing.

With the Tokyo prosecutors now investigating, the scandal has resurfaced and also risks damaging Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration.

What happened?

Between 2013 and 2019, supporters of Abe from Yamaguchi Prefecture, home to his constituency, visited Tokyo for an annual cherry blossom-viewing party thrown by Abe that drew thousands of people from around the country.

The supporters gathered on the evening before the party for a private dinner at a hotel in the capital.

Guests were charged ¥5,000 per person for dinner. However, the hotels used were high-end facilities where the minimum charge per person was higher than that, even with whatever group discounts may have been offered. That led to questions in November last year from the opposition parties about the discrepancy between the total amount collected from the guests and the actual cost of the parties.

What was Abe’s response and why is it a problem?

In November of last year, Abe denied his office had made any payments to defer costs, or had done anything wrong.

However, he added that after checking with his office, he was told that the hotel did not issue any itemized receipts.

In January, Abe said that as there were no payments from his office, it was not necessary to report them.

However, over 600 lawyers and others filed a criminal complaint in May with the prosecutor’s office in Tokyo, accusing Abe and two support group leaders, including a state-paid secretary, of violating the Political Fund Control Law and the Public Offices Election Law. The complaint noted that ¥5,000 per person was not enough to cover the costs of dinner at luxury hotels, where the normal rate was sometimes over twice that much.

As well as supporters, celebrities were invited to some of the cherry blossom viewing parties, with members of idol pop group Momoiro Clover Z making an appearance in 2013. | KYODO
As well as supporters, celebrities were invited to some of the cherry blossom viewing parties, with members of idol pop group Momoiro Clover Z making an appearance in 2013. | KYODO

What is happening now?

After questioning Abe’s secretary and other supporters, the prosecutor’s office learned that the true cost of the parties through 2019 came to over ¥20 million. Abe’s office is suspected of paying at least ¥9 million of that.

Media reports, based on sources within the prosecutor’s office, say that two hotels at which the parties were held over the years told Abe’s office the true cost, and accepted the ¥5,000 per person fees paid at the party as a form of down payment on the remainder. Abe contacted his office late last year about the parties, asking whether additional payment was made to foot the bill, but was allegedly told the ¥5,000 per person charge had covered costs, although this proved to be false.

Abe said last week his office would fully cooperate with the investigation by prosecutors. However, he has yet to respond to calls from the opposition to testify in the Diet about the latest revelations.

The opposition parties continue to grill the government about the latest revelations. If Abe’s support group is found guilty of paying funds for the parties, it could be a violation of the election law’s prohibition on donations to voters in the form of cash or goods, and a violation of the fund law’s duty to list event costs in its income and expenditure reports on political funds.

In 2014, Yuko Obuchi, who briefly served as Abe’s minister for economy, trade, and industry, was forced to resign for similar reasons, after it was alleged her political group had violated the law for misusing political contributions, including by subsidizing bus tours to Tokyo for her supporters. In October 2015, an independent panel investigating the allegations said she had no legal responsibility, and that it was the fault of her aides, who received suspended prison sentences for failing to report the expenditure.

What does this mean for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga?

As Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary for more than seven years, Suga also answered Diet questions about the parties.

In that role, Suga said, he always checked with Abe first before responding when asked about the matter. But he refused to answer questions about his past statements supporting Abe, saying he would refrain from commenting on an open investigation.

But Suga has also said that if his past statements were found to be different from the truth, he would take responsibility. What that means, however, is unclear. In the past, it often meant resignation, although Suga did not clearly say he would go that far.

However, as Abe’s long-time ally, his top spokesperson and one of the most influential members of the former prime minister’s administration, Suga is closely linked to Abe and to the scandal. That raises concerns within the government about the political fallout for Suga’s administration, and whether he will face increasing public and political pressure to explain himself further and to call on Abe to testify.

As of last week, Suga and members of the Liberal Democratic Party were still rebuffing opposition calls for both politicians to explain themselves further.

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