• Kyodo

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A court on Wednesday convicted a former company president for recruiting people in 2020 to forge the signatures required for a referendum to recall Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura, saying the accused "made light of democracy."

The Nagoya District Court sentenced Akira Yamaguchi, 39, the former head of an advertising company in Nagoya, to 16 months in prison, suspended for four years. The ruling said he committed "a vicious crime that diminishes the basis of a direct democratic system and local autonomy."

According to the verdict, Yamaguchi conspired with former Aichi prefectural assembly member Takahiro Tanaka, 60, and his son Masato Tanaka, 29, to have three part-time workers write fraudulent signatures of 71 voters in Saga Prefecture, in October 2020.

Presiding Judge Koji Yamada pointed out that the accused and others tried to "generate a non-existent popular will and dethrone the head of a local government."

Yamaguchi "played an indispensable and important role" in the case masterminded by the former assemblyman, as he secured the part-time workers and prepared the venue for the forgery of signatures, but the sentence was suspended as he had turned himself in, Yamada said.

"This is the worst case in the history of Japan's postwar democracy," Omura told a news conference following the ruling. "The whole truth hasn't been uncovered yet. This is just the beginning."

The recall campaign, led by outspoken plastic surgeon Katsuya Takasu and supported by Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, reflected frustration with Omura over a controversial 2019 art event in the prefecture, which featured a statue symbolizing Korean "comfort women" — women who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II.

The issue has long been a source of diplomatic friction between Japan and South Korea.

The Local Autonomy Act in Japan stipulates that residents can call for a recall of their governor if they can collect the signatures of more than one-third of eligible voters and the election board recognizes them as valid.

The campaign organizers eventually submitted around 435,000 signatures to the Aichi prefectural election committee, though twice as many signatures were required for a recall referendum.

In 2021, the election board concluded that some 80% of the collected signatures were invalid and filed a criminal complaint over the case, leading to Yamaguchi and the Tanakas being indicted for violating the local autonomy law.

Takasu and Kawamura, who repeatedly denied any involvement in the collection of fraudulent signatures, were not indicted.

Yamaguchi was the first among them to receive a sentence. Prosecutors had demanded 16 months in prison, while the defense counsel had sought a fine.

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