The Japanese media was caught off guard when former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai suddenly pleaded guilty during his trial for allegedly buying votes in Hiroshima Prefecture during the 2019 Upper House election.

A woman receives a copy of a newspaper extra edition in Hiroshima last year after Katsuyuki and Anri Kawai were arrested earlier in the day on suspicion of giving out cash to local politicians in 2019. | KYODO
A woman receives a copy of a newspaper extra edition in Hiroshima last year after Katsuyuki and Anri Kawai were arrested earlier in the day on suspicion of giving out cash to local politicians in 2019. | KYODO

Kawai had previously denied the accusation that he had distributed around ¥30 million to about 100 people in order to help elect his wife, Anri, who was running on the Liberal Democratic Party ticket. The fact that he not only changed course in the middle of his trial but resigned his own Lower House seat had reporters scratching their heads.

Some have pondered Kawai’s about-face in a clinical manner, ignoring his own explanation that it was the result of soul-searching. On March 23, the day of the plea change, journalist Akira Sato, who has been covering the Kawai case closely, said on the web talk show “Hitotsuki Mansatsu” that for most media the key point was the source of the ¥150 million given to Kawai by LDP headquarters for Anri’s campaign. Kawai reportedly used part of this fund to buy votes, and the press expected the matter would come to light during his testimony.

Now that Kawai has admitted to almost everything he was accused of, the trial is effectively over, and at first Sato couldn’t make sense of it. Then he read a “very convincing” analysis of the case by election consultant Takuma Ohamazaki that appeared on Yahoo! News. Ohamazaki said the timing of Kawai’s reversal was important because of the public election law, which states that schedules for supplemental elections to fill vacant seats are determined by when the seat becomes vacant. If this is between Sept. 16 and March 15, the supplemental election is held the following April. If it’s between March 16 and Sept. 15, it takes place the following October. Had Kawai resigned his seat before March 15, the election would have been in April, but since he announced his resignation on March 23, it will take place in October.

There are already three supplemental elections scheduled for April, including for the Upper House seat won by Anri, who resigned it in February after she was convicted in her own vote-buying trial. The LDP is not expected to retain the two seats it already controls nor win the one it doesn’t. Had Katsuyuki Kawai’s been up for grabs in April while his trial was still going on, the LDP probably would have lost that one, too.

If the supplemental election takes place in October, it could be folded into the general election already scheduled for that month. In that case, the LDP would have a better chance.

Sato thinks Kawai’s decision to plead guilty and give up his seat when he did was not purely his, but determined by the LDP. His main reasoning is that Kawai fired his lawyers in September and then later rehired them. Since the trial had to be suspended during the time Kawai lacked representation, Kawai’s testimony was effectively postponed until after March 15. And by resigning his seat at the same time he pleaded guilty, he not only put off a supplemental election, but gave the judge more of a reason to go easy on him. He might even get a suspended sentence, like his wife. In actuality, Kawai did not admit to buying votes. He simply said he would no longer defend himself against the charge.

On March 24 on his personal YouTube channel, former prosecutor Nobuo Gohara had a different take on Kawai’s actions. Pointing out that there is a “fine line” between legal political activities and illegal election activities, he said the prosecution was having a hard time making its case. Prior to reversing his plea, Kawai insisted that the distribution of funds was a legitimate political activity. What puzzled Gohara is that by pleading guilty, Kawai, intentionally or not, admits that the distribution of funds was done for illegal purposes, and thus the prosecution has no choice but to also indict the people who accepted the money, something it hasn’t done so far.

As for postponing the supplemental election, Gohara says it depends on how swiftly the court hands down a verdict and a sentence. Ohamazaki hypothesized that Kawai could run for his seat again in the October general election, since he would only be barred from seeking office after his guilty verdict was finalized, but Gohara doesn’t think that’s possible. Even if Kawai gets a suspended sentence, he can’t run for office during the suspension period. And since he pleaded guilty, there’s nothing to prevent the court from finalizing its decision, which Gohara thinks could happen as early as May.

These questions took on greater weight with a comment by LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai when asked about Kawai’s situation. Nikai used the expression, “tazan no ishi,” or “a stone from somebody else’s mountain,” to describe the effect of Kawai’s dilemma. In an editorial published in English, Asahi Shimbun interpreted the expression as meaning “someone else’s example seen as an object lesson,” which Asahi found laughable. The editors said Nikai was trying to distance the LDP from Kawai’s alleged crime, even though as secretary-general he would have had to approve that ¥150 million Kawai received.

Asahi saw the comment as another Nikai “gaffe,” but a March 26 piece in Harbor Business Online by Tamotsu Sugano saw calculation. Sugano doesn’t believe the LDP is pulling Kawai’s strings. He thinks that by admitting guilt, Kawai wants the crime to rebound onto the LDP — specifically former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga — and that Nikai is distancing himself from them.

Whether any of these theories play out depends on factors outside the purview of the trial, like the Olympics and a possible snap election. The most interesting part of the Kawai saga may just be starting.

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