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Editorial: Trial of Japan lawmaker couple must clear up money's ties to politics

The criminal trial of former Justice Minister and incumbent House of Representatives lawmaker Katsuyuki Kawai and his House of Councillors lawmaker wife Anri Kawai has begun. They are being tried for allegedly violating the Public Offices Election Act by buying votes for Anri when she won in the upper house election in the summer of 2019 for the first time.

    The indictment states that the couple distributed a total of 29 million yen (approx. $274,000) to 100 local assembly members and mayors in Anri's local constituency of Hiroshima Prefecture, in return for their votes and their help in securing votes.

    In the first hearing at the Tokyo District Court on Aug. 25, the couple for the most part acknowledged that they had given money to people, but pleaded not guilty, arguing that the money was not handed over as compensation for help in Anri's election campaign. The couple's purpose for supplying the cash will be the main point of contention in the trial.

    The couple's attorneys argued that the money constituted donations as part of political activities, including mid-campaign contributions and congratulatory donations for being elected in the nationwide local elections that had taken place prior to the upper house poll, and was therefore legal.

    But the very fact that such a large amount of money was distributed to a broad range of people within a little over a four-month time frame is abnorsmal.

    Amid a spate of money-related political scandals, reforms have been implemented to make elections and other political activities less costly. The actions taken by the Kawais run counter to this move.

    This case has led public confidence in politics to plummet. Both Katsuyuki and Anri Kawai have no right to keep their positions as legislators.

    Meanwhile, there remain doubts about the prosecution's investigative methods.

    Of the 100 people who are said to have received cash from the Kawais, none have been indicted. In cash-for-favors cases which compromise the fairness of elections, those who accept money are usually charged. That those involved in the latest case have not is out of the ordinary.

    The Kawais' attorneys argue that there was "an illegal backroom bargain" in the prosecution's investigation, in which the recipients of cash from the Kawais were promised that they would not be criminally charged in exchange for providing investigators with testimony that they had been bought out by the Kawais.

    Going forward in this trial, the testimony of these 100 recipients will become the key to determining whether the Kawais are guilty or not. Prosecutors must fully explain why they did not build a case against the 100 recipients of cash, or the credibility of testimonies will be called into question.

    The team running Anri's election campaign received, by bank transfer, 150 million yen (approx. $1.41 million) -- 10 times the amount received by the then incumbent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate in the same constituency -- from LDP headquarters.

    Shortly after the Kawais were arrested, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated, "We must fulfill our responsibility to remain accountable to the public." Yet, the ruling LDP has not made any details of the case clear.

    There are suspicions that the existence of a massive election fund led to the large-scale vote-buying case. This point, too, must be cleared up in court.

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