• Kyodo, Bloomberg


Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been questioned by prosecutors over allegations that his political group illegally covered part of the cost of dinner receptions for supporters, sources close to the matter said Tuesday.

The prosecutors, who questioned Abe on Monday, have already decided to build a case against Abe’s state-paid secretary for allegedly not recording incomes and expenditures related to the dinner events. Total revenues and costs not declared in political fund reports may exceed ¥40 million, they said.

Abe is likely to have denied his involvement in not recording funds related to the dinner functions, the sources said, adding that prosecutors were therefore unlikely to proceed with building the case against the former prime minister.

However, the development could weaken Abe’s political clout and deal a blow to his successor Yoshihide Suga, who served as chief Cabinet secretary under Abe and defended the then-leader over the scandal during news conferences and in Diet debate.

In response to calls from opposition parties, the Liberal Democratic Party, which Abe led until September, is planning to have him summoned to the Diet to address the allegations, possibly before the end of the year.

The former prime minister has expressed readiness for such a move, saying Friday that “I will deal with (any questions) sincerely after prosecutors finish their investigation.”

Abe’s secretary heads a group of the former prime minister’s supporters that hosted events between 2013 and 2019 on the eve of annual, government-sponsored cherry blossom-viewing parties, according to the sources.

Bills for the events held, at two luxury hotels in Tokyo, reached ¥23 million in total over a five-year period through last year — far higher than the amounts collected from attendees, many of whom were voters in Abe’s constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

The secretary confirmed during voluntary questioning that Abe’s side made up the shortfalls, the sources said.

But Abe, who became the country’s longest-serving prime minister before stepping down in September due to health reasons, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing since the scandal came to light in November of last year.

People close to Abe have said that when quizzed by the former leader over the matter, the secretary offered false explanations.

But his statements in the Diet contradicted the subsequent findings of the prosecutors at least 118 times, public broadcaster NHK reported Tuesday, citing a Diet research bureau. Toward the end of 2019, Abe faced stiff questioning in the Diet from opposition members over the spring parties.

Concern over negative effects of the scandal on the Suga administration is growing within the LDP.

On Tuesday, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai admitted that the scandal would be a blow to the current administration. “I wouldn’t say there would be no (negative) effect,” he said at a news conference.

Hiroshi Moriyama, the party’ Diet affairs chief, told reporters separately that Abe should give an explanation in the Diet in a way that will be understood by the public.

Support for Suga slumped 17 percentage points to 39% in a poll published by the Asahi newspaper Sunday, amid the investigation and renewed concern over his handling of the virus crisis. The impacts could affect the timing of the next election, with the Lower House term set to end in October next year.

“The mere fact of an Abe scandal being back in the news and a target of prosecutors’ scrutiny is enough to make life difficult for a prime minister who is carrying on the work of the Abe administration,” said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at consultancy Teneo and author of a biography of Abe.

While it is highly unusual for a former Japanese prime minister to be convicted of a crime, Kakuei Tanaka was convicted on bribery charges in the Lockheed case in 1983. The former prime minister was sentenced to prison, but died while his case was still on appeal.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.