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Indicted Japan lawmaker Akimoto took China trip run by gambling firm: source

The building in Shenzhen, southern China, housing the company headquarters of gambling operator 500.com Ltd. is seen in December 2019. (Mainichi/Joji Uramatsu)

Suspicions are growing that the former Japanese government lead on casino resort policy took a December 2017 trip to China to cozy up to the same Chinese gambling company he is accused of taking bribes from, testimony by a source close to the case has revealed.

Ex-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) legislator Tsukasa Akimoto, 48, who was in charge of shepherding the government's "integrated" casino resort policy into law, stated that the late 2017 trip was "to observe the Chinese economy." However, according to the Mainichi Shimbun's source, when Akimoto arrived at Tokyo's Haneda Airport for the trip, he was met by Chinese gambling operator 500.com Ltd. vice president Zheng Xi, 37. Akimoto was also accompanied by his then political secretary, 41-year-old Akihiro Toyoshima, currently under indictment without arrest on suspicion of bribe-taking.

Furthermore, two more LDP members -- lawmaker Takaki Shirasuka, 44, and now former lawmaker Shigeaki Katsunuma, 45 -- were also among the party.

In total, about 10 people gathered at Haneda Airport, including representatives of Sapporo-based tourism firm Kamori Kanko Co., which was looking to invest in a casino resort planned for the village of Rusutsu in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. The group then boarded a private jet arranged by 500.com and flew to Shenzhen, in southern China just north of Hong Kong.

Akimoto and the other travelers made their first stop on the two-night, three-day trip to China at 500.com headquarters, where Akimoto was briefed by the CEO for about an hour on the firm's efforts in the online casino business and its New York Stock Exchange listing. The company chief also apparently made a strong appeal for inclusion in casino resort projects in Japan, to which the source quoted Akimoto as saying, "Make your best effort."

The group stayed in nearby Macau at a hotel with an attached casino, where the Japanese guests tried their luck with chips apparently provided by 500.com. On the second day, the group visited a second casino, where they were shown the VIP room. They also accepted local gifts of tea sets.

Before his arrest, Akimoto insisted to the Mainichi that the trip "was simply for economic observation. There was nothing dirty about it, and I didn't accept any money. It (the trip) was just about getting a look at IT-related firms in Shenzhen, and I just happened to visit the company (500.com)." However, there is no evidence remaining that the Shenzhen sojourn was an economic fact-finding mission.

The political funding report for Akimoto's support organization lists two payments of 1.28 million yen to a Hong Kong firm prior to the lawmaker's China trip. Akimoto has insisted that this amount was to cover the excursion, and had been disbursed by his secretary.

"It's my understanding that I paid (for the trip). There's a receipt, right?" he has explained.

However, the Hong Kong firm that received the money was a paper company set up by 500.com adviser Masahiko Konno, 48, recently issued a fresh arrest warrant on suspicions of bribing Akimoto. Authorities believe that the receipts for the two payments were fabricated.

Meanwhile, LDP members Shirasuka and Katsunuma are also thought to have had their travel expenses covered by 500.com, and they have been questioned by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office's special investigation unit.

Katsunuma admitted to the Mainichi that he did not pay for the China trip. He stated that Akimoto had approached him, saying, "Would you like to come on a casual casino inspection tour? Don't worry about the travel expenses." Katsunuma added that Akimoto "was a more senior member of our political faction (in the LDP), so there was no reason to say no. I didn't check where the money for the trip was coming from."

Shirasuka, who was elected in the House of Representatives' Chiba No. 13 constituency, had visited the office of Chiba Mayor Toshihito Kumagai with several 500.com employees in January 2019. Chiba city just east of Tokyo was considering vying to host one of Japan's casino resorts at the time, and Kumagai apparently took the meeting at Shirasuka's request. However, the municipality has stated that the 500.com representatives did not make any concrete business proposals at the meeting.

500.com adviser Konno has posted a photo of himself on Facebook eating with Shirasuka.

The Mainichi Shimbun has sent written questions on who paid for Shirasuka's China trip to the lawmaker's office, but the office replied that it was "not taking reporting enquiries related to integrated resorts," as the casino resorts are referred to officially.

(Japanese original by Takuya Suzuki, Saitama Bureau, Yujiro Futamura, City News Department, and Seiho Akimaru, Chiba Bureau)

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