Photo/IllutrationChief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga receives a question from a reporter at a Nov. 27 news conference. (Takeshi Iwashita)

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Opposition lawmakers are pressing the government to explain how “anti-social elements,” a vague term used for gangsters and other dodgy groups, attended a publicly funded cherry blossom viewing party hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

However, government officials have declined to answer the questions, citing the ambiguity of the term, restrictions on releasing personal information and the absence of a guest list, which was shredded by the government.

Opposition parties say Abe has used the tax-funded sakura viewing events to reward supporters and help ruling party lawmakers get re-elected.

Amid the controversy, a photo emerged on the Internet of a scene in what appears to be Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, the venue for the annual cherry blossom viewing events.

In the picture, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is shaking hands with an apparent member of an anti-social group.

Opposition lawmaker Hideya Sugio asked Suga about the photo at the Nov. 21 Upper House Cabinet Committee session.

Suga replied that he had no knowledge of the individual in the picture, but he added that there may be a need to tighten security at such gatherings.

At his Nov. 26 news conference, Suga said he had been informed that a man considered to be an anti-social element had managed to attend the cherry blossom viewing party.

Jun Azumi, the Diet Affairs Committee chairman of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters that his party would demand more answers.

“Why was an individual clearly unsuited for the event allowed to attend and drink alcohol and eat food paid for by taxpayers’ money?” he said. “Unless an investigation is made into how the man participated, the distrust of the public will reach its pinnacle.”

But lower-ranking government officials indicated that it would be difficult to find more information about the guests.

“We have been unable to grasp the details of the participants because we have not obtained a roster of those who attended,” a National Police Agency official said at the Nov. 27 Lower House Judicial Affairs Committee session.

A Cabinet Office official in charge of the event said, “I would like to refrain from responding because it concerns personal information.”

While opposition lawmakers continue to try to determine Suga’s responsibility, the chief Cabinet secretary emphasized at his Nov. 27 news conference that he himself never said that individuals belonging to anti-social elements had attended the gathering.

He also said there is no established definition for anti-social elements, and that he had not determined if individuals belonging to such elements were mingling among the thousands of guests at the event.

(This article was written by Noboru Inoue and Ryutaro Abe)