Controversy over shredded party guest list adds to Abe’s woes

TOKYO • Was it plain coincidence or uncanny timing? On the same day that Japanese opposition lawmakers asked to see the guest list for a controversial spring garden party hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the list was shredded by Cabinet Office employees.

Amid cries of subterfuge, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga insisted the government had nothing to hide and that it was just happenstance: heavy demand for the industrial-strength shredder means it must be booked way in advance. He also said the back-up soft copy of the list “cannot be retrieved”.

The party – a yearly government shindig for VIPs such as diplomats, business leaders and athletes – has been in the headlines for weeks. It was Japan’s top trending topic on Twitter last month.

The party next year has been cancelled as the government said it will relook the way guests are invited, after allegations first emerged that the taxpayer-funded event was being tapped by Mr Abe to reward loyal voters from his ward in the western Yamaguchi prefecture.

Opposition lawmakers are crying foul, noting that the shredder in question could dispose of 1,000 sheets of A4-sized paper within just 40 seconds, and questioning the government’s explanation.

In their own probe, they have dug up proof that “anti-social” forces – a term used to refer to those with yakuza links – had also scored invites to the exclusive party.

Furthermore, it was found that the owner of the bankrupt multi-level marketing firm Japan Life who is under police investigation for fraud had used an invitation to the party to boost his firm’s credibility with prospective clients.

Domestic media has also pointed to lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) quietly deleting photographs and other online traces of the party.

All this has begun to affect Mr Abe, who last month rewrote history as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, and his two-month-old Cabinet.

A Nikkei-TV Tokyo poll last week showed his approval rating falling by seven percentage points to 50 per cent from October, while a Kyodo poll showed support dropping 5.4 points to 48.7 per cent.

Amid the controversy, LDP lawmakers have given up on their plan to discuss revising the Constitution in the current Diet session that will close next Monday, instead of asking for an extension that will buy the opposition more time.

And while a general election is not due until October 2021, talk is rife within LDP ranks that Mr Abe may call a snap election early next year to renew his mandate and catch the opposition unawares. He did so in 2017, when he came under fire over two separate cronyism scandals.

Like in the previous two scandals, in which public records were either shredded or falsified, the latest controversy has again cast a harsh glare on Japan’s spotty record-keeping.

While Mr Abe promised to tighten the reins after the scandals, discretion is still left to each government agency on whether a public document is “important” enough to be retained or discarded after use.

The Asahi Shimbun, in a scathing commentary last week, said: “Whenever a scandal surfaces, the bureaucrats’ go-to excuse is that all pertinent documents have been ‘discarded’ or ‘cannot be located’.”

Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano concurred, telling The Sunday Times that he found it difficult to believe there was no available record of the guest list in question. “Government employees work on computers, and the normal course of action is to save the file somewhere,” he said.

“The public cannot possibly be expected to think that the guest lists are handwritten, or are drawn up from scratch every year without any past references.”

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