The former prime minister said he was unaware his office had subsidized cherry blossom viewing parties for his supporters.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has apologized for what he called errors regarding undeclared political funds involving up to 30 million yen ($ 289,807) and corrected statements he made to Parliament on the matter.
Abe told a parliamentary committee on Friday he felt deeply responsible for repeatedly denying allegations his office had subsidized cherry blossom viewing parties for his supporters from 2016 to 2019, in possible violation Japan’s strict political finance laws.
The former prime minister said he knew nothing about the payments and pledged to work to regain public trust.
“Even though the accounting procedures went by without my knowledge, I feel morally responsible for what happened,” Abe told the committee. “I think deeply about this and offer my wholehearted apologies to citizens and all lawmakers.”
He also filed corrected reports on political finance for the past three years.
Politicians in Japan are prohibited from providing anything to voters that could be interpreted as a gift. The rule is so strict that two ministers in Abe’s cabinet last year had to resign quickly for giving things like melons, crabs and even potatoes to voters in their constituencies.
The scandal involving Abe’s office began after opposition lawmakers raised questions about a 2018 dinner for which Abe’s guests paid a fee of 5,000 yen ($ 48). They said it was low for a party at an upscale Tokyo hotel, and Abe’s office covered the difference.
On Thursday, the Tokyo District Procuratorate handed over a summary indictment against Abe’s secretary, Hiroyuki Haikawa, and fined him 1 million yen ($ 9,650) for the scandal. The indictment alleged that Haikawa, 61, failed to indicate that an admission fee of 11.6 million yen ($ 111,600) was collected from guests at the party and that a payment of 18.7 million yen ($ 180,000) had been paid to the hotel.
The prosecutor’s office, however, decided not to press charges against Abe, citing a lack of evidence.
The Mainichi newspaper reported Thursday that Japanese Twitter users protested the prosecutor’s decision not to press charges against Abe. The hashtag “I protest the decision not to indict Shinzo Abe” was all the rage on the social media platform, with 160,000 tweets posted with the phrase Thursday afternoon, the daily reported.
Opposition lawmakers say the former prime minister – who resigned in September due to illness – has made false statements on the issue in parliament at least 118 times.
Abe’s public apology marks a marked reversal of fortunes for Japan’s longest-serving ruler, whose grandfather and great-uncle also served as prime ministers.
The 66-year-old leader resigned his post as prime minister in September after holding the post for nearly eight years.
The scandal threatens to harm his successor, Yoshihide Suga, who was Abe’s right-hand man throughout his tenure and who defended his former boss in parliament.
Suga, who has been plagued by other controversies and saw his support ratings drop less than a year before the next lower house election is called, apologized for making inaccurate statements.
In parliament on Friday, Abe did not answer questions from opposition lawmakers about whether he would take political responsibility for the scandal by stepping down as an MP.
He also struggled to explain why he was able to file detailed and updated fundraising reports, even though he said his office did not have the underlying receipts for the parties.