Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, poses for photos with guests at a 2016 cherry blossom-viewing party he hosted in Tokyo's Shinjuku Gyoen park. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe apologized to lawmakers on Friday over a scandal involving payments for supporters, a day after prosecutors said they would not indict him in the case.

The country’s longest-serving prime minister has denied any wrongdoing, but acknowledged that he had made statements to parliament that were subsequently shown to be false.

“It turned out that I gave explanations that are contrary to the facts,” Abe said at the lower house.

“Even though I was not aware of it, I feel a moral responsibility. I deeply regret this and apologize to my fellow lawmakers,” he added.

The case revolves around dinners organized on the eve of government-sponsored cherry blossom viewing parties.

His office is alleged to have paid more than eight million yen ($76,000) for the dinners attended by supporters over five years until 2019, failing to report the expenditures as required by Japanese law.

Abe had previously denied that his political office had paid for the dinners. 

He was questioned by prosecutors over the case, but on Thursday they said they would not take further action against him.

‘Why don’t you step down?’

Abe held a press conference on Thursday for the first time since he resigned earlier this year over health reasons, apologizing but insisting he had no knowledge of the payments.

He said he “deeply, deeply” apologized for falsely claiming his office had not paid.

“My political responsibility is very serious. I will do my utmost to regain the people’s trust,” he said.

In parliament, opposition lawmakers excoriated the former leader.

“You have no intention of finding out the truth at all, and no intention of explaining to the public,” said Takahiro Kuroiwa of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP).

“In a private firm, if the president makes false statements 100 times, then makes an excuse saying he or she was deceived by an employee, is it forgiven?” added Kiyomi Tsujimoto, another CDP lawmaker.

“Why don’t you step down as a lawmaker?” she demanded.

Abe’s successor, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, has also apologized for making statements about the payments that turned out to be false.

Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga poses at the 2018 cherry blossom viewing party with a man identified in the popular press as representing an underworld group shown above in a Singapore rooftop swimming pool. Suga is now prime minister. Photo combination: Togetter.

While Suga is not expected to face prosecution, it comes at a bad time for his cabinet, with his approval ratings sinking in part over his handling of a third wave of coronavirus cases.

Abe weathered several scandals while in office, including over the cherry blossom parties, a decades-old tradition intended to honor the great and good for their achievements.

His government was accused of packing the event with supporters, and even inviting a member of Japan’s infamous yakuza underworld.

When the opposition demanded a guest list be produced, it emerged the list had been shredded.

While the government denied wrongdoing, Suga has said he will not hold the event next year.

– AFP