TOKYO: Japanese authorities arrested ruling party lawmaker Tsukasa Akimoto on Wednesday (Dec 25) on suspicion of accepting bribes from a company interested in setting up a casino in Japan, Tokyo prosecutors said.
Hours later prosecutors searched the office of a second lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as part of the same investigation, Kyodo news and other Japanese media said, in what appeared to be a widening probe.
The high-profile arrest of a member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's LDP could harden public opposition to casinos, which have been consistently unpopular despite the government's push to have them running by the early 2020s.
A senior vice minister in the Cabinet Office until October last year, Akimoto oversaw government policy on casinos. He is suspected of receiving 3 million yen (US$27,500) in cash and a family holiday worth the equivalent of US$6,500 from three suspects despite knowing that their company wanted help with a casino bid, prosecutors said.
The three suspects were also arrested on suspicion of bribery, prosecutors said. No one was available for comment at Akimoto's office, which was raided by prosecutors last week. The lawmaker has repeatedly denied doing anything illegal.
"I have absolutely not taken part in any wrongdoing," Akimoto wrote on his official Twitter account earlier on Wednesday, after media reported he was likely to be questioned. "I will continue to emphasise this point."
Hours later, prosecutors searched the office of lawmaker Takaki Shirasuka in Chiba, east of the capital, in connection with the probe into Akimoto, Kyodo and public broadcaster NHK said.
Prosecutors did not respond to a request for comment. Officials at Shirasuka's offices in Tokyo and Chiba could not immediately be reached.
Prosecutors did not name the company whose three employees allegedly tried to influence Akimoto, but public broadcaster NHK and other local media identified it as Shenzhen, China-based 500.Com Ltd , an online sports lottery service provider.
Investor relations representatives for 500.Com did not respond to two requests for comment. The phone number and email for its media relations representative listed on its website did not work. No one was immediately available for comment at the company's main number or customer service departments.
Representatives of four opposition parties said they would submit a bill to abolish Japan's casino law in the next session of parliament, public broadcaster NHK said. Lawmakers only finished legalising casinos last year after a series of controversial bills and years of debate.
The government sees casinos anchoring ambitious "integrated resorts" that include shopping outlets and hotels and are aimed at bolstering tourism, tax revenue and local economies.
Japan, which has a shrinking population and economy, is desperate to maintain growth in tourism, particularly after the Tokyo Olympics end next year.
Some analysts have said the casino market could be worth around US$20 billion a year or more, thanks to an affluent population and the proximity to Asia's wealthy gamblers. But critics have cited risks of increased gambling addiction and more organised crime.
Akimoto's arrest could add to the negative images the Japanese public holds of casinos, said Hidenori Suezawa, an analyst at SMBC Nikko Securities.
"It may be a blow to some local governments' ongoing campaign to attract casinos," he said.
Gambling has traditionally had a seedy image in Japan, with none of the glamour associated with spots like Las Vegas.
"This shakes the foundation of the government's integrated-resort policy," Kazuhiro Haraguchi, parliamentary affairs chief for the opposition Democratic Party For the People, told Kyodo.
"If a deputy minister in the Cabinet Office with authority (over the casino issue) used his position to get money, it would be outrageous."
An opinion poll in October by Jiji news found 57.9 per cent opposition to integrated resorts versus 26.6 per cent support.