• Kyodo

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A ruling party lawmaker who has been a proponent of casino resorts in Japan was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of receiving ¥3.7 million in bribes from a Chinese gambling operator.

The arrest of Tsukasa Akimoto, a 48-year-old member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party who sits in the House of Representatives, has cast a cloud over the government’s policy to promote casinos to buoy the economy, with opposition forces set to present a bill to the Diet next year that would ban casino operations.

Akimoto has denied performing any favors for the Chinese company, 500.com Ltd., which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

In late September 2017, the lawmaker is suspected to have received ¥3 million in cash from the Chinese company in Tokyo.

Later, in mid-February 2018, Akimoto traveled to Hokkaido at the invitation of the Chinese firm, and expenses for the trip — amounting to some ¥700,000 — were allegedly provided by the company, according to Tokyo prosecutors.

Prosecutors have also arrested three people related to the company on suspicion of providing bribes to Akimoto, who resigned from the LDP following his arrest.

An incumbent member of the Diet was last arrested in 2010.

The current case is the latest in a spate of money and gift-giving scandals that have afflicted the Abe administration, costing two Cabinet ministers their jobs earlier this year.

Akimoto, known for his vocal support of the introduction of casino resorts in Japan, has denied any wrongdoing, saying Wednesday that the allegations were “groundless.”

Akimoto also said in a Twitter post in the morning, “I have never been involved in wrongdoing at all. I will continue to assert that.”

While he was 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 on introducing casinos as part of so-called integrated resorts comprising casinos alongside a large hotel and conference facilities. He also served as a senior vice minister for the tourism ministry.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on the allegations against Akimoto in a news conference, citing the ongoing investigation.

Asked about the impact of the arrest on the country’s casino policy, he said the government “will steadily push ahead with it so that benefits from building IRs (integrated resorts) will be reaped as soon as possible.”

Suga also said that not all contacts between government officials and casino operators are prohibited, as officials may use information obtained through such occasions as a reference in drawing up policies.

The three arrested on suspicion of providing bribes to Akimoto are Zheng Xi, 37, who served as an executive of the company, and Masahiko Konno, 48, and Katsunori Nakazato, 47, who both served as advisers.

Last week, prosecutors searched two of Akimoto’s Tokyo offices over his ties to the Chinese casino and sports gambling operator, which is suspected of violating the foreign currency exchange law.

He has been questioned on a voluntary basis by the prosecutors, who also searched the homes of two of his former secretaries earlier this month over their ties to the Chinese company.The company, headquartered in the southern city of Shenzhen, runs online casinos and a sports betting business, among other ventures, and is suspected of bringing in several million yen in cash from overseas without declaring it.

The foreign exchange law bans any person from carrying more than ¥1 million ($9,100) in cash into Japan without informing customs authorities. Violators face a fine of up to ¥500,000 or imprisonment for a maximum of six months.

Japan has recently legalized casinos operated at integrated resorts in the hope of attracting more foreign tourists, thereby invigorating the economy after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

The government plans to choose up to three locations for the first resorts, which are expected to start operating in the mid-2020s.

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

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

In December that year, Akimoto visited the firm’s headquarters in Shenzhen and was taken on a trip to a casino in nearby Macao.

Akimoto was first elected to the House of Councilors in 2004, after serving as a secretary to a lawmaker. In 2012, he successfully ran for a seat in the House of Representatives.

In late November, Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki said the prefecture would not pursue an immediate bid to construct a casino resort due to local concern about the project’s environmental impact.

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