Japanese lawmaker arrested for allegedly getting bribes from Chinese gambling operator

Kyodo News

Posted at Dec 26 2019 11:05 PM | Updated as of Dec 26 2019 11:06 PM

A Japanese lawmaker who spearheaded the country's casino resort policy is suspected of taking 3 million yen ($27,300) from a Chinese gambling operator as a gift in support of his election campaign, sources familiar with the matter said Thursday.

Tsukasa Akimoto, a 48-year-old now-former member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, was arrested Wednesday for allegedly receiving 3.7 million yen in bribes from 500.com Ltd.

Of the bribes, 3 million yen in cash is suspected to have been handed to Akimoto at a House of Representatives office building in Tokyo on Sept. 28, 2017, the day the lower house was dissolved for an election, the sources said.

Prosecutors allege Akimoto traveled to Hokkaido in February last year at the invitation of the Chinese company and expenses for the trip amounting to around 700,000 yen were provided by it.

Akimoto, who resigned from the LDP following his arrest, has denied any wrongdoing to prosecutors.

The company had been asking Akimoto to increase the number of planned casino resort locations in Japan to five since January last year, around the time it expressed interest in being involved in a casino project in Hokkaido, the sources said.

The LDP had initially proposed four to five locations for the resorts based on the number of local governments interested in bidding. But it was at odds with junior coalition partner Komeito, which suggested a more conservative two to three locations due to concerns about gambling addiction.

The parties finally agreed in April last year to choose three locations for the first resorts, which are expected to start operating in the mid-2020s.

Three people related to the Chinese company were separately arrested Wednesday on suspicion of providing bribes to Akimoto.

Akimoto's case is the latest in a series of money and gift-giving scandals to have beset the Abe administration, with two Cabinet members having been forced to resign earlier this year. Before Akimoto, the most recent arrest of a Japanese lawmaker occurred in 2010.

While a senior vice minister at the Cabinet Office for about a year through October last year, Akimoto was in charge of overseeing the government's policy aimed at introducing so-called integrated resorts comprising casinos alongside large hotel and conference hall facilities.

He also served as a senior vice minister of the tourism ministry.

Prosecutors last week searched two Tokyo offices of the lawmaker over his ties to the Chinese casino and sports gambling operator, which is suspected of bringing in more than 2 million yen in cash from overseas without declaring it, in violation of the foreign currency exchange law.

Among the three others arrested Wednesday, 48-year-old Masahiko Konno, who served as an adviser to the Chinese company, has told people around him, "I've brought my own money" when he was investigated over the undeclared sum, according to the sources.

The prosecutors suspect the money was given to Akimoto.

Japan has recently legalized casinos to be operated at integrated resorts in the hope of attracting more foreign tourists to lift the economy after the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The Chinese company was keen on being involved in a casino resort project promoted by the village of Rusutsu in Hokkaido. It reached out to Akimoto immediately after setting up a subsidiary in Tokyo in July 2017, according to the sources.

In August 2017, both Akimoto and a top executive of the company attended a symposium organized by it on integrated resorts held in Naha, Okinawa.

The following December, Akimoto visited the firm's headquarters in Shenzhen and was taken on a trip to a casino in Macau.

Prosecutors on Wednesday searched the offices of LDP lawmaker Takaki Shirasuka and former LDP lawmaker Shigeaki Katsunuma, who accompanied Akimoto on the trip.