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Customs authorities searched Marubeni Corp.’s head office Thursday on suspicion that the major trading house evaded duties on octopuses imported from Africa, customs officials said.

Marubeni is the third company, after Maruha Corp. and Toyota Tsusho Corp., to be investigated recently for allegedly evading duties on imported octopuses.

Marubeni’s octopus imports from Mauritania, one of the countries whose exports are exempt from duties, showed a more than five-fold increase in 1999 from the year before.

The Tokyo customs office believes Marubeni falsely claimed the seafood was from countries whose octopus exports to Japan are exempt from tariffs.

A Marubeni spokesman said the company will cooperate with the investigation.

“This spring, we conducted in-house hearings from the head of the fisheries department and people in charge of octopus imports and customs, but couldn’t confirm any incident of tax evasion,” said spokesman Masaaki Mukai. “We take the investigation to heart and will cooperate with the customs house wholeheartedly.”

According to the trading house, its octopus imports from Mauritania in 1999 stood at 4,300 tons, a sharp increase from the 800 tons imported in 1997 and 1998. In 2000, the amount dropped to 1,400 tons.

Seafood from Mauritania accounted for 43 percent of imports in 1999, compared with about 10 percent in the previous year, the company said.

An official on loan to a Marubeni subsidiary, who was dispatched to Las Palmas on the Canary Islands, was in charge of buying African octopus, the company said.

In one of the other cases, Maruha, a leading seafood importer and processor, is suspected of evading around 400 million yen in customs duties from June 1996 to December 1999. The company allegedly submitted false certificates detailing the octopus imports’ place of origin.

Three Maruha employees were indicted May 29.

The company had claimed that about 11,400 tons of octopuses worth 5.2 billion yen were caught in Gambia and Mauritania, African countries whose octopus exports are exempt from the duties. But prosecutors claim the imports came from Senegal and the Canary Islands, whose octopus exports are subject to a 5 percent duty in Japan.

Toyota Tsusho, a Toyota group company, was targeted in a similar search by customs officers May 30.

Authorities had been investigating the case as industry insiders had pointed out that such practices were rampant among firms desperate to boost their dealings in octopuses, which have a very low profit margin.

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