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Arrest of Japan's ex-justice minister, wife in vote-buying scandal disappoints constituents

A van believed to be carrying Diet member Anri Kawai enters the Tokyo Detention House in the capital's Katsushika Ward at around 5:15 p.m. on June 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

Residents of Hiroshima Prefecture, the constituency from which legislator Anri Kawai was elected to the House of Councillors, have expressed disappointment over her arrest along with her husband, former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, on suspicion of vote buying, as public prosecutors press ahead with their probe.

Anri Kawai, 46, won her seat in the upper house election last year after being backed by the headquarters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a closely contested battle. She and her husband have now come under suspicion of offering over 25 million yen (about $233,800) to people in return for support in the election.

It has already emerged that the LDP's headquarters offered 150 million yen (about $1.4 million) to Kawai's camp during the campaign -- about 10 times the amount remitted to the campaign office of fellow contender Kensei Mizote, who was also representing the LDP. Motohiro Fukuchi, a Hiroshima Prefectural Assembly member who serves as secretary-general of the prefectural chapter of the Democratic Party for the People, commented, "If money that came from the LDP was used illegally, then the Abe administration bears a heavy responsibility."

Following the June 18 arrests, one official from a support committee for Katsuyuki Kawai commented, "It brings shame on Hiroshima to receive national attention in this way," while a woman who helped at Anri Kawai's camp stated, "Where did the money come from and how was it used? I want an explanation."

The former mayor of the Hiroshima Prefecture town of Akiota, who resigned after it emerged that he received 200,000 yen (about $1,870) in cash from Katsuyuki Kawai ahead of the upper house race, had little to say. "I can't criticize the Kawais much as I'm under investigation myself. The investigation will probably proceed when the Kawais provide explanations," he said.

It is the second year in a row for an incumbent member of the Diet to be arrested, following the arrest in December 2019 of LDP legislator Tsukasa Akimoto on suspicion of taking bribes over a casino-related project. However, it is unheard of for a husband and wife both serving as members of the Diet to be arrested together. It is also believed to be the first time for a person who has served as justice minister, a figure at the helm of the nation's judicial affairs and public prosecution, to be arrested.

As Diet members are representatives of the public chosen though an electoral process, a meticulous investigation is no doubt required. Past cases come to mind, such as the investigation into former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who was arrested and charged in 1976 in connection with the Lockheed bribery scandal. In that case, public prosecutors actively exposed the corruption in politics. And from the 1990s onward, Japan saw the arrest of incumbent Diet members in connection with corruption at major construction firms and with the former mutual aid foundation KSD.

But from the 2010s onward, there has been a "winter" in terms of such investigations. In 2010, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office arrested Tomohiro Ishikawa, a former aide to Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Ichiro Ozawa then serving as a member of the House of Representatives, but in autumn that year, it emerged that prosecutors from the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office had tampered with evidence on a floppy disk. After this, prosecutors were pressed to depart from an investigation method focusing on confessions, and this produced a blank period in political investigations.

Amid such a situation, prosecutors went ahead with the arrest of Akimoto in December last year. With the latest arrests of Katsuyuki and Anri Kawai, three incumbent Diet members have now been arrested over the past six months. It can be said that by pursuing the politicians' criminal responsibility, public prosecutors are displaying a stance of actively pressing ahead with investigations into the political arena.

Japanese original by Misa Koyama and Kazuyuki Ikeda, Hiroshima Bureau; Saori Moruguchi, Osaka City News Department; and Ai Kunimoto, City News Department)

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