Japan lawmaker arrested in casino scandal, NHK says

Yumeshima island in Osaka Bay in 2014. Osaka proposed the reclaimed island as a casino resort site, for what could potentially be Japan’s first integrated resort. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Tokyo prosecutors arrested a ruling party lawmaker on suspicion of receiving cash from a Chinese company seeking to invest in the casino industry, dealing a blow to unpopular plans to open the country to the gaming industry.

Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politician Tsukasa Akimoto, who had served as a vice-minister in charge of promoting the establishment of casinos in the country, was arrested Wednesday (Dec 25) on suspicion of receiving payoffs of about 3.7 million yen (S$45,830), the Tokyo Public Prosecutor's office said.

The bribes included cash, plane tickets and hotel rooms, it said in a statement.

The company was not named in the indictment and prosecutors didn't indicate what he did in return for the bribes. Three others who were related to the company were also arrested, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors also searched the office of another LDP lawmaker, Mr Takaki Shirasuka as part of the bribery investigation.

Tokyo prosecutors searched Mr Shirasuka's local office in Chiba Prefecture east of the capital, NHK and Kyodo news said.

Prosecutors did not respond to a request for comment. Officials at Shirasuka's offices in Tokyo and Chiba could not immediately be reached.

The Chinese firm suspected of paying the bribes runs online casinos and is headquartered in the southern city of Shenzhen, according to Kyodo News of Japan.

It's also suspected of smuggling several million yen in cash into Japan without declaring it to customs, according to the report.

Mr Akimoto became the first sitting lawmaker to be arrested in about a decade, according to Kyodo.

"I was not involved in any fraud," Mr Akimoto said on his Twitter feed before the arrest and has denied any wrongdoing. Tokyo prosecutors have so far declined to comment on the reports

The nation legalised casino gambling in 2016 to great excitement in the industry, where many have long tried to get a foot in the door in a potential US$20 billion (S$27.10 billion) gaming market.

Companies including MGM Resorts International and Las Vegas Sands Corp have spent heavily to get access to a gaming market that could become Asia's second-largest after Macau.

Three years later, some of that enthusiasm is wearing off. A number of casino executives, who declined to speak publicly because of the sensitive nature of the casino approval process, told Bloomberg News that the procedure in Japan has been more difficult compared with other markets that have built gaming industries. At least one company, Caesars Entertainment Corp, has pulled out.

Japan's law allows for the establishment of three casino resorts, and Osaka, Yokohama and Tokyo are among the local governments seeking to attract a casino or considering doing so, according to the country's tourism authority.

Opinion polls show that the public opposes the idea.

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