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Politics

Japan's casino resort scandal points to reach of China's fat wallet

Prosecutors probe lawmaker's ties to gambling company

Japan's plans to open integrated casino resorts have drawn interest from gambling industry players large and small.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- A Japanese ruling-party lawmaker deeply involved in crafting policy for the country's nascent casino industry has come under scrutiny for his alleged connection with a Chinese gambling company suspected of bringing large sums of money into Japan illegally.

Tokyo prosecutors on Thursday raided the offices of Tsukasa Akimoto, a member of the lower house of Japan's parliament known for his policy expertise on so-called integrated resorts, which were legalized just last year. The homes of two of his former aides were raided this month in connection with the allegations, and Akimoto has submitted to voluntary questioning.

The revelation comes at a time when other countries also contend with Chinese business players using their financial might to exert political influence. New Zealand has decided to ban foreign political donations after a furor surrounding donations by Communist Party-linked businessman Zhang Yikun to the opposition National Party.

An Australian lawmaker resigned after defending China's military presence in the South China Sea -- contradicting his party's stance -- at a conference to which he was invited by real estate tycoon Huang Xiangmo. Huang donated at least $2 million to Australian political parties as a permanent resident, but was banned from the country this year.

Akimoto oversaw casino resort policy as a senior Cabinet Office official from August 2017 to October 2018, and he is part of a bipartisan parliamentary group that seeks to promote integrated resorts.

Prosecutors have raided the offices of lower house member Tsukasa Akimoto. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

"I was involved in no wrongdoing whatsoever," he told Nikkei.

In August 2017, Akimoto delivered a keynote speech at a symposium held by the Chinese company in question in the Okinawan capital of Naha, explaining the casino legislation then under consideration by the government. The company's CEO also spoke at the event, expressing interest in investing in a Japanese casino project.

The following January, the company disclosed plans to bid for a casino resort in the Hokkaido village of Rusutsu in partnership with a local tourism business. Sources said Akimoto dined with those from the Chinese business at a hotel in Rusutsu that February, along with village officials who were open to a resort bid. The tourism company reportedly provided information about the state of the town's tourism industry.

The New York-listed company, whose head office is in Shenzhen, operates sports lottery and online gambling services. After Japan passed legislation to promote integrated resorts in late 2016, the company moved to get in on the business, setting up a Japanese arm in July 2017. The company is suspected of bringing in from overseas several million yen in cash without customs clearance in violation of the foreign currency law.

The company's plans were torpedoed when the Hokkaido government said in November that it would not host casino resorts.

The government plans to initially allow integrated resorts at only three locations. Nine municipalities expressed interest in bidding in a tourism ministry survey in September. Multinational casino operators including Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts International and Hong Kong-based Melco Resorts and Entertainment are angling for projects.

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