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Fact Check: Rumors ex-PM Abe a major shareholder in Japan vote-counting machine firm false

A Musashi Co. ballot reader and sorter machine is seen in this image provided by the company.

TOKYO -- The 2021 House of Representatives election campaign will be officially declared Oct. 19, with polls opening Oct. 31. During national elections, the Mainichi Shimbun is fact-checking some of the information disseminated repeatedly on social media and other platforms.

    This time, the focus is on rumors that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a major shareholder in Musashi Co., a major producer of election-related machines based in Tokyo's Chuo Ward. The Mainichi Shimbun has concluded that the rumors are false.

    Musashi is involved in the development and production of machines with functions including ballot reader sorters and vote counters, as well as ballot papers, among other products. Rumors claiming that Abe is one of the company's major shareholders, combined with other rumors that the election is being run dishonestly, have spread on social media.

    The claims have been spurred by remarks made at a 2019 Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan press conference by Yasunori Kagoike, the former director of Osaka-based incorporated education institution Moritomo Gakuen who went on trial for crimes including subsidies fraud.

    Kagoike told reporters: "Regarding our country's electoral system, vote counting was originally done by hand, but now these machines called Musashi are used. I hear the top shareholder of these Musashi machines (company) is Shinzo Abe, and I hear that (former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications) Heizo Takenaka produced them, but having votes automatically gathered by Musashi creates a situation where it's easy for dishonesty to take place."

    An edited-down video of this utterance has spread online, and it appears that some of the versions shared have been viewed more than a million times. On Twitter, posts describing the content of Kagoike's remarks, as well as tweets with statements such as "Musashi is Shinzo Abe's company," and, "Musashi must be investigated," are being made constantly.

    But the information is false. Former Prime Minister Abe never once makes an appearance in the securities reports publicly released on Musashi's website from 2002 onwards, which include reports on the status of major shareholders -- the company's 10 largest shareholders. The consistent majority shareholder is a company called Jomo Jitsugyo Kabushikigaisha, based in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward. Masami Akai, Musashi's PR department head, denied the rumors to the Mainichi Shimbun: "There is absolutely no connection with Mr. Abe. It is also not true that Mr. Takenaka was involved in producing the machines."

    A particular target of rumors of dishonesty in the election are Musashi's ballot paper reader-sorter machines, which are being used for vote-counting activities. The machine instantly reads the characters on ballot papers, and separates the votes per candidate. The machines are reportedly in use at about 80% of Japan's municipal governments.

    One of the machine's characteristics is that the machine's entire sorting process once ballots are fed into it is visible. Akai said, "From the start of development, we kept in mind the importance of accuracy and transparency in elections. If its processes were hidden, it would raise suspicions of the product containing some intentional gimmicks inside, so we aimed for a design that anyone can follow with their eyes."

    Even so, there are rumors that the machines can "internally rewrite the names of candidates." Akai responded with a wry smile: "It separates votes at a speed of 660 ballots per minute, and what I'd like to ask is if there's technology capable of doing those things (that the rumors say it can)."

    But vote counting is done not just with machines, but with a large number of staff, too. An official at the Tokyo Metropolitan Secretariat to Election Administration Commission's elections department told the Mainichi Shimbun: "Generally, two employees look at and double check the ballots the reading and sorting machine has separated out."

    Furthermore, in line with provisions laid down in the Public Offices Election Act, ballot-counting witnesses endorsed by each candidate and party are present to oversee the counting. Anyone can watch the count take place, and they go ahead under the gaze of a number of people including each campaign's officials, journalists posted to cover the vote and others, making it very difficult to fix the results.

    Musashi has reportedly also received direct inquiries and contact from individuals suspecting foul play.

    "In the over 50 years that our company has engaged in the election business, there have been times when parties other than the Liberal Democratic Party have taken the reins of government, and in the regional elections across the country that use our products, a variety of results have been produced," Akai said.

    At present, Musashi's machines have been introduced to over 1,000 municipal governments' systems. "We're in the elections business; if we had connections to specific candidates or political parties, we would lose trust. Fortunately, that municipal governments' election administration commissions respond to us in a measured way answers everything, doesn't it?"

    (Japanese original by Miyuki Fujisawa, Digital News Center)

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