Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida apologized Thursday for "inviting suspicion and mistrust" in politics among the public due to a political funds scandal rattling his Liberal Democratic Party as the first incumbent premier to attend a parliamentary ethics panel.

During a televised session of the House of Representatives political ethics committee, Kishida also promised to promote reforms to safeguard compliance in ruling party governance, saying, "I will continue taking a leading role."

But the opposition bloc criticized Kishida's appearance at the committee, saying he failed to contribute to uncovering further details of the scandal as he only reiterated what he had argued at other Diet sessions so far.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks at a session of the House of Representatives political ethics committee in Tokyo on Feb. 29, 2024. (Pool photo)(Kyodo)

The LDP, which has been in power for most of the period since 1955, has come under intense scrutiny amid allegations that some of its factions neglected to report portions of their incomes from fundraising parties and created slush funds for years.

As several key lawmakers suspected of having been involved in the scandal are slated to join the two-day panel that began on Thursday, Kishida called on them to explain how they accumulated and used the unreported money.

Despite some reluctance to attend the panel open to the media, the lawmakers, including four from the biggest LDP faction formally headed by the late Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, decided to follow suit in the wake of Kishida's appearance.

Kishida, meanwhile, pledged Thursday to amend the political funds control law to ensure similar scandals do not occur again by introducing guilt by association, which would force lawmakers to step down or ban them from running for reelection if their staff members are convicted.

A total of 10 individuals belonging to three LDP factions, such as the one Kishida led until December, have been either indicted or issued summary indictments for violating the political funds control law. They have decided to disband over the scandal.

Grilled by Yoshihiko Noda, who served as prime minister under the defunct Democratic Party of Japan for around one year through December 2012, Kishida vowed not to host his own fundraising parties during his tenure as premier.

Noda, now a member of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said Kishida held such events seven times in 2022 alone, while a code of conduct for ministers urges Cabinet members to refrain from holding "large-scale" parties.

On Thursday, Ryota Takeda, a senior member of another intraparty group, also attended the committee, but he struggled to explain how members of his faction had generated and received slush funds, opposition lawmakers said.

Ryu Shionoya, the de facto leader of the Abe faction, and three lawmakers -- former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, former trade minister Yasutoshi Nishimura and former LDP Diet affairs chief Tsuyoshi Takagi -- will join the committee on Friday.

Matsuno, Nishimura and Takagi previously served as secretary general of the Abe faction. After the latest slush funds scandal came to light late last year, major members within the Abe faction resigned from their party or government posts.

Kishida attended the panel as his government aims to secure the swift passage of a draft budget for the next fiscal year starting in April. Diet deliberations on the budget proposal have stalled against the backdrop of a stalemate over the committee hearings.

On Wednesday, Kishida abruptly announced his intention to appear before the committee with the media in attendance, seemingly in an attempt to break the impasse in negotiations to convene the council.

The first lower house ethics committee in 15 years was initially scheduled to be called from Wednesday but was delayed after the ruling and opposition parties clashed over whether the media would be allowed to attend its hearings.

The LDP had said five lawmakers at the center of the slush funds scandal had expressed their readiness to attend the hearings, but opted for a closed-door format, drawing a backlash from the opposition parties.

The deliberative council on political ethics, which was convened Thursday for the first time since July 2009, is responsible for examining the political and moral conduct of lawmakers who face allegations of wrongdoing.

Hearings of the ethics panel are, in principle, closed, but they can be made public when attendees agree. Of nine similar cases in the past, only one, in 1996, was completely closed, while five were open to the media.

The council, established in 1985, can admonish lawmakers, such as by recommending they step down from their roles in the Diet or abstain from attending parliamentary sessions for a period, although no such measures have ever been taken.

Unlike sworn witnesses in the Diet, individuals will not be charged with perjury even if they give false testimony.

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