Tsukasa Akimoto, 49, an incumbent member of the House of Councillors in Japan’s Diet (national legislature), has been hit with a four-year prison sentence and a fine of about $69,200 (¥7.58 million). The punishments result from a bribery scandal that rocked Japan’s fledging Integrated (IR) Resort industry to its core in 2019, where Akimoto, the former Senior Vice Minister of the Cabinet Office, was involved.
On Tuesday, September 7th, a Tokyo court led by presiding Judge Toshihiko Niwa found Akimoto guilty of bribery charges and violating Japan’s Act on Punishment on Organized Crimes.
The IR Bribery Case
In the said case, 500.com, a Shenzhen-based lottery company that is also listed on the New York Stock Exchange, had established a Tokyo branch in July 2017 in a bid to enter Japan’s IR race. At first, 500.com had an eye from an Okinawa Prefecture but later switched its focus to Rusutsu village in the northern island of Hokkaido.
Per the court proceedings, the Chinese sports lottery company allegedly offered cash bribes to politicians in Japan to win one of the available IR licenses. Interestingly, according to case reports, at least half a dozen conservative Japanese politicians were open to taking bribes from the NYSE-listed 500.com.
Court documents from the prosecution side pointed to Akimoto as the recipient of the most significant sum of bribes in the case, where he reportedly received about $69,200 (¥7.58 million). In a term that lasted about a year, from September 2017, the federal legislator served as a senior official in the Cabinet Office in charge of policy development for Japan’s IR.
Akimoto aside, several other politicians of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, including Masahisa Miyazaki, Hiroyuki Nakamura, Toshimitsu Funahashi, and Takeshi Iwaya, are each reported to have received smaller bribes of about $9,000 (¥1 million). In addition, Miko Shimoji, a politician from the Japan Innovation party, was also charged with accepting the smaller bribes.
Two of the politicians accused of accepting the $9,000 (¥1 million) bribes later came out in public and admitted that the 500.com bribery allegations were indeed true. Prosecutors later dropped the charges issued against them for undisclosed reasons. Akimoto was identified as the ringleader of the scathing bribery debacle, and he became prosecutors’ primary focus. He was also accused of being the go-between for the other politicians and 500.com, along with a prolific Hokkaido businessman.
In October 2020, 500.com advisors Kastunori Nakazato and Masahiko Konno also admitted they paid Akimoto bribes for preferential treatment for Japan’s IR process. As a result, the duo was sentenced to suspended prison terms.
Following the explosion of the bribery scandal, 500.com has since changed its name to BIT Mining Limited and shifted its attention to cryptocurrency.
Akimoto Maintains His Innocence in the Bribery Case
Despite all the curveballs thrown at Akimoto throughout the trial by the prosecution, he has maintained that he is innocent. In a press briefing last year when the bribery allegations had just been revealed, Akimoto insisted that he never offered favors to any companies or parties in the IR matter.
Meanwhile, his attorneys have said they are appealing the case, citing that the prosecutors’ efforts to get a conviction were ‘unreasonable’ and accusing the Tokyo District Court of being ‘sloppy’ for giving the case merit. As he was taken to the Tokyo Detention House after last Tuesday’s ruling, Akimoto accused the court of being biased, saying, ‘I want the high court to judge without any preconceptions.’
When Akimoto was first arrested on Christmas Day of 2019 by Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Japanese prosecutors were going after a five-year prison sentence. At that time, Akimoto was the deputy minister for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet.
However, in the recent ruling, the accused got one year less on top of Judge Niwa’s order to pay a fine worth the alleged bribery amount. Mind you, these four years are broken down into a two-year prison time with a four-year suspended sentence.
Akimoto’s former aide, Akihiro Toyoshima, was also among the accused. He received a suspended sentence, along with most of the other politicians in the case who admitted guilt and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution team.
Even with the sentencing, Akimoto was still granted bail of about $907,000 (¥100 million) and pledged to contest in Japan’s upcoming Lower House election in November.