National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Casino bribery arrest is blow for Abe's post-Tokyo Olympics growth strategy

JIJI, Kyodo

The arrest Wednesday of a former state minister in charge of the government’s policy on integrated casino resorts has brought about another scandal for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and dealt a blow to one of the key aspects of the ruling party’s economic growth strategy.

House of Representatives lawmaker Tsukasa Akimoto, 48, of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was apprehended on suspicion of receiving ¥3.7 million in bribes from Chinese gambling operator 500.com Ltd.

Sources familiar with the matter said Thursday that he is suspected of receiving ¥3 million in cash from the Chinese gambling operator on Sept. 28, 2017, the day the Lower House was dissolved for a snap election, as support for his election campaign.

Prosecutors allege Akimoto, who had been working as a member of the Diet’s suprapartisan integrated resort promotion group launched in 2010, traveled to Hokkaido in February last year at the invitation of the Chinese firm and that expenses for the trip, amounting to around ¥700,000, were provided by the company.

The Diet enacted an integrated resort promotion law in December 2016, after the legislation cleared a related Lower House committee chaired by Akimoto, despite concerns about a possible rise in gambling addiction among the public and the potential for money to be laundered through casinos.

Akimoto served in the state minister position from August 2017 through September this year. The integrated resort implementation law was enacted in July 2018.

In published materials from June 2018, Akimoto voiced his eagerness to realize resorts that highlight Japanese culture and utilize casino revenue to allow visitors to enjoy entertainment with midlevel costs.

The opposition camp is poised to grill the Abe administration on the matter of Akimoto’s arrest during next year’s ordinary Diet session.

The bribery charges against Akimoto suggest “a structural problem” with the government’s integrated resort policy, Jun Azumi, Diet affairs chief of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters Wednesday. “We’ll rigorously question (the government) in the Diet,” he stressed.

“The Abe administration has been promising to revitalize regional economies through casinos, regarding casinos as a key contributor to economic revitalization, but this is far off the mark,” Azumi argued.

Azumi also suggested that the CDP will submit a bill to abolish the integrated resort implementation law during the Diet session.

In a meeting with the LDP’s Diet affairs chief Hiroshi Moriyama on Thursday, Azumi demanded that an off-session Diet meeting be held on Friday for deliberations over the case. But Moriyama rejected the demand, saying it will take time to make necessary preparations.

Instead, Moriyama proposed holding a meeting of executives of the Lower House Cabinet Committee soon after New Year’s to hear explanations about the scandal from senior Justice Ministry officials.

Akira Koike, secretariat chief of the Japanese Communist Party, told a news conference that the prime minister should be held responsible for Akimoto’s arrest. He also demanded Akimoto resign as a lawmaker.

On Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on the lawmaker’s arrest, citing the need to avoid influencing the ongoing investigation.

“We’ll work steadily to bring the benefits of integrated resorts as soon as possible,” Suga told reporters.

But there is a sense of crisis within the LDP over Akimoto’s arrest, the first arrest of a lawmaker since Abe returned to power in December 2012.

On Wednesday, prosecutors also searched the respective offices of a current and a former Lower House member of the LDP in relation to the case. Takaki Shirasuka, the current LDP lawmaker, and Shigeaki Katsunuma accompanied Akimoto when he visited 500.com Ltd.’s headquarters in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, in 2017.

Some in the government and the ruling party are worried about how the arrest might impact the Cabinet’s approval ratings, as well as the introduction of casino resorts.

The government plans to develop casino resorts in up to three locations. The city of Yokohama and the prefectures of Osaka, Wakayama and Nagasaki have already declared they will bid to host a resort.

As early as January, the government is slated to release a basic policy on selecting locations for the resorts. It will also set up a casino oversight committee under the Cabinet Office to issue licenses to operate casinos and take measures to prevent gambling addiction.

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