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Editorial: Ex-Japan justice minister's prison sentence cannot end vote-buying scandal

The Tokyo District Court has handed down former Minister of Justice and ex-House of Representatives lawmaker Katsuyuki Kawai a three-year prison sentence for bribery in contravention of the Public Offices Election Act.

    The court recognized almost all of the charges, which state that during the 2019 House of Councillors elections in which Kawai's wife, former House of Councillors lawmaker Anri Kawai, stood, a total of 29 million yen (about $263,000) was handed to 100 people including local assembly members and mayors in the Hiroshima electoral district.

    It is a large-scale bribery case without precedent that has shaken democracy to its core. The prosecution of an individual with experience at the top of an organ of state tasked with preserving law and order has led to enormous damage in trust toward the government.

    The handing down of a prison sentence for breaking the election act is extraordinary. It appears to be a ruling made with deep attention to their actions' maliciousness.

    Initially, Katsuyuki Kawai maintained his innocence. But almost all of the individuals who received the cash gave statements that they had "thought of it as done with the intention of bribery." He switched his position and admitted to bribery during defendant questioning.

    But the incident's full picture is still yet to be revealed.

    No one who received bribes is on trial for criminal liability. This case is about damage to fair elections, and questions remain over the prosecution's response.

    The ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) headquarters furnished the Kawai campaign with 150 million yen (some $1.36 million) in election funds. Suspicions that the enormous sum led to the bribery have not been dispelled.

    Katsuyuki Kawai previously said, "Not a single yen was used for bribery." Yet at the trial, there was testimony that part of the money from headquarters was allocated to it, but the court's decision did not refer to the funds' source.

    Regarding the case, Prime Minister and LDP President Yoshihide Suga has only said repeatedly: "Once the documents confiscated by prosecutors are returned, our party's certified public accountants will investigate them."

    Following repeated attempts by senior LDP figures to put the blame on each other, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai has finally acknowledged that the responsibility of deciding to provide the money lies with himself and the party president at the time, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. If this is the case, both men should quickly explain the events that led up to it.

    After Anri Kawai was found guilty, her election win was nullified, but she still kept the money she received from her lawmakers' salary.

    Komeito, the minority party in the ruling coalition with the LDP, has prepared an outline for revisions to the law on lawmakers' pay that would require part of the money be returned in cases such as this.

    But views within the LDP on the proposed changes are very cautious, and its presentation at the recently ended Diet session was put off.

    The court's judgment cannot draw a line under the issue. Incidents involving money, politics and LDP lawmakers are emerging one after another. The LDP must face up fully to the people's distrust in politics.

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