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Over the past few months, Aichi Prefecture has been rattled by the discovery of fraudulent signatures gathered for a recall petition calling for Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura to resign over his handling of a 2019 exhibition.

A joint report by the Chunichi Shimbun and the Nishinippon Shimbun revealed that many part-time workers in the city of Saga in Kyushu were mobilized to write the signatures. In addition, it also came to light that the same person made the fingerprints that need to accompany the signatures.

After receiving a criminal complaint from the prefectural election office, the Aichi Prefectural Police confiscated all the signatures and launched a full-scale investigation earlier this year. But it remains a mystery as to who did it and why.

The episode began when the prefecture’s 2019 Aichi Triennale international art festival displayed a controversial statue of a girl symbolizing “comfort women” — those who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II.

Angered by the exhibition, Katsuya Takasu, director of the Takasu Clinic cosmetic surgery facility, and others collected signatures for over two months from August 2020 calling for the resignation of Omura, who was chairman of the event’s executive committee.

By law, voters can seek a referendum calling for a governor’s resignation if signatures of one-third of eligible voters are collected within the space of two months.

The group submitted about 435,000 signatures to the prefecture’s election committee — short of the legally required 866,000 signatures to hold such a referendum.

After concerns were raised that the signatures may have been forged, the election committee looked into the issue and determined that 83.2% of the signatures submitted were invalid, of which about 90% may have been written by the same people.

The prefectural election committee filed a criminal complaint with the prefectural police over suspected signature forgery, a violation under the Local Autonomy Law.

Fingerprints

During interviews with the Chunichi Shimbun, multiple part-timers who were hired from Oct. 20 to the end of the month in Saga to write down names on a document demanding Omura’s resignation said they did not put their fingerprints on it.

If the signatures written in Saga were submitted to the Aichi Prefectural Election Committee by Nov. 4, they would have been in the final stages of being forged, including the fingerprints, from around the end of October.

On the morning of Nov. 4, a staff member of the group campaigning for Omura’s recall was sorting signatures by municipality at a hotel in Nagoya.

“There were a large number of signatures that appeared to have been written by the same person, and most of them had fingerprints,” the member said.

The person added that the angles and shapes of the prints were the same, and it looked as if one person had stamped them one after another.

Of the 435,000 signatures submitted to the prefectural election office, at least 108,000 were accompanied by fingerprints that appeared to have been stamped repeatedly by a limited number of people.

Whether or not the person who orchestrated the forgery and the person who actually forged the fingerprints are the same remains unclear.

The source of the list of names used for copying the signatures is also unknown. The addresses on the list were from at least 10 municipalities. According to sources, the prefectural government’s investigation showed that the signatures included about 8,000 people who had already died, suggesting that an old list may have been used.

Who and why?

The group that gathered the signatures is suspected of involvement.

According to sources, the group instructed an ad-related company in Nagoya to hire part-timers for the work. In an order form, it said, “Oct. 19, staff arrangement agency, ¥4,746,500,” with the signature and hanko seal of a senior official of the group placing the order.

“We may not have enough signatures. Please gather people to write the names down,” the president of the ad company has been quoted as saying.

The motive for the forgery, however, remains unclear. The number of signatures submitted by the campaign group was about 435,000, short of the legally required number of 866,000 for a referendum.

“If they didn’t reach the legally required number of signatures, they might have thought that the election authorities wouldn’t investigate them,” said a person involved in the campaigning group. “They might have simply tried to show off the fact that they had collected a certain number of signatures.”

Takahiro Tanaka, secretary-general of the group seeking Omura’s resignation, has repeatedly denied any involvement during news conferences.

“This was conducted by people who want to obstruct these activities (seeking the resignation),” Tanaka said.

Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, who provided to the campaign group a list of names of people who signed a petition a decade ago as part of a campaign to dissolve the Nagoya assembly, denied that this list was used in the latest campaign.

Even though Kawamura insists there was no wrongdoing on his part, others are not so sure.

According to Kawamura and the mayor’s office, the list of names involved in the 2011 campaign regarding the city assembly amounted to about 34,000 people and was provided to the group last September after the gubernatorial resignation campaign began.

The mayor’s office claims that it was not a problem legally to provide the list. According to the Personal Information Protection Commission of the Cabinet Office, the law requires the consent of individuals when personal information is provided to a third party, but the law does not apply if it is used for political purposes.

However, a woman in her 50s in Nagoya who gave her signature in 2011 was skeptical.

“Even if it is not against the law, it is uncalled for that the list of names was used without permission in other recall petitions,” she said.

Yukiko Miki, president of a nonprofit organization focused on information disclosure, agrees.

“Not all the people who provided signatures 10 years ago were supporters of the mayor,” said Miki. “In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the need to protect personal information, and providing a list of names is ethically problematic.”

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published March 1.

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