Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted Friday to the national legislature he had provided false testimony over spending by his political office on dinner parties for supporters held on the eve of annual cherry blossom viewing parties, in a scandal that has tainted his administration’s legacy and corroded his own credibility.
“I offered my responses based on the knowledge I had at that time. But, in the end, my remarks were incorrect and harmed the public’s trust toward the legislature,” Abe said in the meeting of the Lower House Steering Committee. “I’m acutely aware of the significance of my political responsibility. Again, I apologize to all members of the public and lawmakers.”
Throughout the two-hour appearance at steering committees of both chambers, the former prime minister deflected blame onto his aides and maintained that they had not told him the truth.
Abe declined to provide detailed accounts of exactly how the money was spent, saying the hotels where the dinners were hosted had refused to disclose them, but he did say he would consider revealing itemized receipts to the public.
The former leader's summoning to the Diet took place a day after the special investigation unit of Tokyo District Public Prosecutor's Office went ahead with a summary indictment of one of his state-paid secretaries on a charge of violating the Political Funds Control Act. The secretary was fined ¥1 million on Thursday, and is said to have already resigned from Abe's office.
The prosecutors did not press charges against the nation's longest-serving prime minister, who cooperated in a voluntary hearing this week. Still, the decline of Abe’s influence within the party and the damage to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will be unavoidable, at least in the short term, which could have a spillover effect into 2021 — a crucial general election year.
During the Friday meeting of the Lower House steering committee, opposition lawmakers — who had been grilling Abe for months — accused him of intentionally misleading Diet members. Abe again denied knowledge of or participation in supplementing the costs of the dinner events, acknowledging that his statements had been untrue but maintaining that the deception had not been deliberate.
Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Kiyomi Tsujimoto pressed for Abe’s resignation as a Diet member to take responsibility, but the former prime minister refused, saying he would endeavor to earn back the trust of the public by serving the country “based on my profound reflection.”
Takahiro Kuroiwa, another CDP lawmaker, faulted Abe for lying and questioned him on whether he would proceed with embezzlement charges against the secretaries who he said used his office’s reserve to cover the dinner costs without his awareness. The former leader instead defended them and ruled out such a possibility, essentially offering clemency in recognition of their lengthy service.
“I just can’t believe that the prime minister would accept whatever his secretaries would say, without question, on a matter that would affect his political life. I can’t think it’s the truth,” Kuroiwa said. “I just can’t help but think this explanation is the beginning of new lies.”
Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the CDP and an Upper House member, pointed out contradictions between Abe’s statement Thursday that the itemized receipts were not kept at his office and earlier occasions when the former prime minister had said they didn’t exist. Abe insisted his statements had been consistent, prompting objections from opposition lawmakers.
Abe stepped down for health reasons in September, but the controversy over funding of the dinners, arranged before parties held in spring to enjoy the season's cherry blossoms, resurfaced in November when the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office questioned his secretaries and numerous supporters. Under scrutiny was whether his political office had properly documented the costs for the dining events, which ran to ￥30.22 million and were funded in part by the office, in political funding reports filed between 2016 and 2019.
Many attendees at the dinners were Abe's supporters from Yamaguchi Prefecture, which raised suspicions that both the meals and the subsequent state-funded cherry blossom viewing parties were part of a cronyism scheme.
During the Friday sessions, the former prime minister was at times on the offensive — such as when batting back an accusation from Toru Miyamoto, a Japanese Communist Party lawmaker, that the dinner party had been used to buy votes. In response, Abe implied that given his political status, he would have no need to engage in illegal activities to retain his Lower House seat.
When Fukuyama criticized Abe for passing off responsibility onto his secretaries, Abe conceded that he himself had also been culpable as a Diet member.
The Liberal Democratic Party had initially been keen to arrange the appearance in front of the committee by their former leader in a closed-door session. The opposition bloc, though, was far from satisfied, and pledged to call for Abe to appear as a sworn witness before a Diet committee, to grill him over his responsibility in the affair.
In the end, the ruling party relented to opposition demands and made the sessions public, hoping nonetheless to put the matter to rest before the end of the year and so minimize political damage.
Abe apologized to the public in a news conference Thursday night, acknowledging that he was “collectively responsible” but maintaining his position that he'd been oblivious to the accounting practices because he “was focusing on the duties of the prime minister.”
Suga, who was chief Cabinet secretary under Abe and had defended him previously by echoing the then-prime minister’s talking points, also apologized to the public Thursday night for having given incorrect explanations.
When he took office, Suga essentially branded his Cabinet as an extension of the Abe administration for the sake of continuity and stability. The series of developments involving his former superior will be an additional encumbrance to an administration already seeing its approval rating plummet, due to dissatisfaction with its handling of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and — more importantly — will weaken Suga's political standing in an important election year.
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