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Illegal payments to election staff by ex-Japan minister, wife allegedly common

An account on the Line messaging app in which campaign staff for Anri Kawai exchanged messages before campaigning for the 2019 House of Councillors election is seen in this photo. (Image partially modified)

HIROSHIMA -- The payment of wages in excess of the legal limit to election campaign workers was apparently common practice in campaigns for former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his wife and legislator Anri Kawai, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

Three people, including a secretary to the former justice minister, are under arrest on suspicion of paying illegal remunerations to campaign staff for Anri Kawai, 46, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), during the campaign for the 2019 House of Councillors election, which she won.

The opposition camp is grilling the couple over the scandal, demanding that they resign as legislators.

Messages exchanged between a man linked to the election team and a woman who was asked to recruit people to serve as workers in campaign vans for Anri Kawai via the Line messaging app before the campaign period kicked off have recently been discovered.

"I'll check how to pay people. I hope we can handle it under the 'Kawai rules,'" the man texted.

"Yes. When I recruit people, I'll tell them it's a legally set amount," the woman replied. The legal amount means the upper limit of 15,000 yen per day set by the Public Offices Election Act.

Those who served as workers aboard campaign vans for the upper house member have told police during voluntary questioning that they received 30,000 yen a day as remuneration, twice the amount of the legal limit.

The man and the woman exchanged the Line messages on the assumption that such illegal remuneration payments were apparently made under set rules, suggesting that these were regular practices during campaigning for both Katsuyuki and Anri Kawai.

A woman in her 70s, who once served as a worker at Katsuyuki Kawai's private office, admitted that such illegally high remunerations were paid to campaign staff working for him in the 2014 and 2017 House of Representatives elections, both of which he won, in accordance with the "Kawai rules."

In the 2019 upper house race, Anri Kawai successfully ran in the Hiroshima prefectural constituency.

The LDP headquarters fielded two candidates in the electoral district, where two seats were up for grabs, for the first time in 21 years. The other candidate was Kensei Mizote, former disaster management minister who was seeking a sixth six-year term.

Katsuyuki Kawai is said to have strongly recommended to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga that the LDP field Anri in the constituency, which is under the influence of LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida. Mizote is a senior member of an LDP intraparty faction led by Kishida.

The party headquarters supported Anri Kawai, who was isolated in the prefecture dominated by pro-Kishida forces. The fight was viewed as a "proxy war" between Kishida and Suga, both of whom are said to be exploring the possibility of succeeding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

An overwhelming majority of local assembly members belonging to the LDP Hiroshima prefectural chapter threw their support behind Mizote. Moreover, Mizote had the backing of far more organizations than Anri Kawai.

"Secretaries to locally elected lower house members usually help in campaigning for upper house candidates backed by the same party. However, Anri was so isolated that her camp needed to recruit people to work as campaign staff at local employment security offices," said a person linked to the LDP.

Since it is difficult to secure campaign workers who can fluently speak through loudspeakers in campaign vans to ask the public to vote for their candidates, campaign teams for various candidates compete to secure such human resources in each election.

Some people knowledgeable of the situation point out that behind the latest election scandal is the fierce battle between the two LDP candidates in the Hiroshima electoral district.

However, some individuals familiar with election campaigning say it is rampant for campaign offices for Diet election candidates to pay remunerations in excess of the legal limit to campaign staff.

"If campaign teams only offer to pay the legally set amount, nobody would be willing to work. I don't think there are any candidates who don't pay additional wages," said a man who once worked as a secretary to a Diet member.

In the latest incident, receipts for additional pay in excess of the legal limit were apparently issued to campaign workers besides those for regular wages.

"It's extremely sloppy to issue receipts for excessive pay," said the man.

Campaign offices for public election candidates typically issue receipts for additional wages under different dates, and then record the expenditures in the months before and after elections as regular political activity costs rather than as campaign expenses, according to the man.

The man says that such practices are illegal and admits that slush funds are sometimes used to cover such extra costs.

"In a way, we've been under the impression that there is a tacit agreement on the payment of excessive wages to campaign workers. I think the district prosecutors have been strict toward the latest case," said the man.

In an unexpected move, Anri Kawai won the election by garnering some 290,000 votes in the race in which seven candidates ran. Mizote consequently lost his seat.

Prosecutors are poised to get to the bottom of the "Kawai rules" allegations and are expected to investigate whether the Kawais were directly involved in the incident.

(Japanese original by Akari Terouchi and Isamu Gari, Hiroshima Bureau, and Kenkichi Tanaka, Osaka City News Department)

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