Photo/IllutrationOpposition party lawmakers question Cabinet Office officials Jan. 7 about the handling of rosters of participants to the annual cherry blossom viewing parties in Tokyo. (Takeshi Iwashita)

The government admitted Jan. 7 it did not even keep records that it disposed of rosters of participants to annual cherry blossom viewing gatherings in Tokyo hosted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Its failure to keep track of the process, acknowledged by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, could constitute a breach of the law, according to an expert on public documents.

Suga admitted during his news conference that no records existed for the disposal of rosters for sakura gatherings between 2013 and 2017. Such documents are the responsibility of the Cabinet Office, which is in charge of the gatherings.

The admission flies in the face of earlier assertions by Suga that the rosters had been disposed of in an entirely aboveboard manner.

The absence of such records constitutes a violation of government guidelines on the handling of public documents. The guidelines require the appropriate authorities to record the file name and disposal date for any disposal of public documents that have passed their preservation period.

Suga's admission suggests that not a shred of evidence will ever surface that could confirm what he has repeatedly said about the disposal of the rosters.

The issue has generated intense public interest in light of suspicions expressed by opposition lawmakers that many guests at the taxpayer-funded sakura viewing party in Tokyo's Shinjuku district in 2019 were supporters of Abe and other political figures.

It later emerged that the documents were shredded about an hour after a member of the Japanese Communist Party requested disclosure of the identities of participants to the function.

At his news conference, Suga said, "It is a fact that records that should have been kept were not."

He said that Cabinet Office officials had no clear recollection of why such records were not kept.

Suga concluded that officials had clearly erred in not recording the fact that public documents were disposed of.

In response to calls from opposition parties and other critics that the rosters be divulged, Suga repeatedly stated that the records were destroyed "after being properly stored based on the established rules."

When pressed by reporters to delve deeper into the matter, Suga ruled out the possibility that any records will ever turn up.

Government guidelines on the preservation of public documents were established at the same time the Public Records and Archives Management Law took effect in April 2011.

According to Cabinet Office officials, the preservation period for the sakura gathering rosters had been set at one year until fiscal 2017 and for less than a year from the following fiscal year.

Officials in charge of the rosters said all records of annual sakura gatherings hosted by Abe during his second stint as prime minister have been destroyed.

Yukiko Miki, head of the nonprofit organization Access-Info Clearing House, said the lack of disposal records could constitute a violation of Article 8 of the Public Records and Archives Management Law, which requires the consent of the prime minister before the disposal of any public document for which the preservation period has expired.

"I believe that the lack of records about the disposal can only mean that a proper assessment of the disposal had not been conducted as required by law," Miki said.