Former prime minister Shinzo Abe apologised after prosecutors declined to indict him for illegal payments his office made involving dinner receptions for his supporters during Japan’s popular cherry blossom season.
When Mr Abe resigned in September, he cited ill health but critics have suggested the scandal might have been a reason.
His successor, Yoshihide Suga, scrapped the annual cherry blossom viewing party the day he took office, but his government has seen its public support plunge due to delayed coronavirus measures and a spate of scandals involving Mr Abe’s former ministers.
The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office cited lack of evidence in deciding not to press charges against Mr Abe.
But it formally indicted a longtime aide who allegedly failed to report fees and payments for the receptions from 2016 to 2019.
Mr Abe has denied wrongdoing and said Thursday that he had no knowledge about the illegal payments until the report about the investigation surfaced last month.
“Even though the accounting was done without my knowledge, I am keenly aware of my moral responsibility,” Mr Abe told a packed news conference.
“I would like to deeply and sincerely apologise to the people.”
Mr Abe, who remains a politician in Japan’s ruling party, is set to speak in a parliamentary session to correct previous remarks he made about the cherry blossom viewing party expenses.
Opposition politicians say Mr Abe gave false statements at least 118 times.
Mr Suga, who was the chief Cabinet secretary in Mr Abe’s government, said he takes seriously that the explanation Mr Abe repeatedly provided turned out to be untrue.
Mr Suga also apologised that he gave a false explanation to parliament based on information he got from Mr Abe and his office.
The scandal started after opposition politicians raised question about a 2018 dinner party for which Mr Abe’s guests paid a 5,000 yen (48 US dollars) fee.
They have said that was low for a party at an upmarket Tokyo hotel and alleged Mr Abe’s office covered the difference.
Prosecutors investigated whether Mr Abe, his aide and two executives from his political support group had subsidised the party fees in violation of campaign and election funds laws.
Japanese law prohibits politicians from giving gifts to constituents.
The indictment alleged the aide, Hiroyuki Haikawa, 61, failed to report that 11.6 million yen (111,600 US dollars) in admission fees were collected from party guests and a 18.7 million (180,000 US dollar) payment was made to the hotel.
Mr Abe said Mr Haikawa took the charges seriously and has resigned as his aide.
He has not spoken publicly.
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