• Kyodo

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An aide of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga apologized Friday for inviting a dozen lawmakers to the Prime Minister's Office for lunch, a move that sparked a backlash as an improper use of a government facility and sending the wrong message on COVID-19 protocols.

"I will reflect deeply on the ways in which I lacked consideration," Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Manabu Sakai told a parliamentary session. He also said he will refrain from holding a similar meeting in the future.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a news conference he reprimanded Sakai, instructing him to be mindful that the Prime Minister's Office is a place for government business and to "strictly refrain from actions that would draw criticism."

Sakai, a House of Representatives member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, had invited members of Ganesha no Kai, a loose faction of LDP lawmakers close to Suga, to the office on Thursday to eat bento and hold a 40-minute meeting.

The gathering drew fire from both ruling and opposition parties as mixing government business with political activity. Suga told reporters that he did not know the meeting was held at his office.

"The Prime Minister's Office is an especially important place. I've never heard of anything like this in my political career," said Tsutomu Sato, chairman of the LDP's General Council.

It was also seen as sending the wrong message as the government is calling on people to refrain from dining in large groups to prevent the spread of the coronavirus amid a resurgence of infections in some regions.

"This was inappropriate on two or three different levels," said Tomoko Tamura, policy chief of the Japanese Communist Party.

Sakai said the lawmakers took care not to break COVID-19 protocols, separating into four groups while eating their bento, with some going into another room, and wearing masks during the meeting.

The gathering came after Suga drew fire for having a steak dinner with celebrities last December as infections were on the rise and days after health minister Norihisa Tamura's apology for nearly two dozen ministry officials holding a late-night party despite the Tokyo government's request for restaurants to close early.

It also fell on the same day the government designated Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi prefectures for stronger anti-coronavirus measures, deeming the infection situation in those areas to be just short of that requiring a state of emergency.

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