Japanese prosecutors searched two Tokyo offices of a ruling party lawmaker on Thursday over his alleged ties to a Chinese casino and sports gambling operator suspected of violating the foreign currency exchange law.
The 48-year-old lawmaker, Tsukasa Akimoto, is a member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and has been a vocal supporter of the introduction of casino resorts to Japan.
His parliamentary and constituency offices were searched by members of the Tokyo prosecutors' special investigation squad in connection with the Chinese company, which is known to have shown interest in becoming involved in a casino project.
According to sources familiar with the matter, an official associated with the Chinese company met with Akimoto in April last year to ask for his help to start a casino business in Japan and a senior official of Rusutsu village in Hokkaido also joined the meeting. Rusutsu had expressed readiness to host a casino resort.
The prosecutors are trying to find any links between Akimoto and a sum of money suspected to have been brought into Japan undeclared by the Chinese firm.
An employee of Akimoto's constituency office denied knowing the lawmaker's whereabouts as dozens of reporters gathered at the office in the capital's Koto Ward.
Akimoto apologized in a tweet for the "trouble" but denied any wrongdoing, saying, "I've never been involved in a fraudulent act. I'll argue that point at any cost."
Akimoto was in charge of developing the government's so-called integrated resort project policy that will allow casinos to be introduced in Japan alongside large hotel and conference facilities. He oversaw the policy from August 2017 to October last year as a senior vice minister at the Cabinet Office.
The raids follow a spate of money and gift-giving scandals that have hit the Abe administration, costing two Cabinet ministers their jobs.
Earlier in the month, members of the special investigation squad searched the homes of two of Akimoto's former secretaries over their ties to the company and prosecutors have questioned the lawmaker on a voluntary basis, according to investigative sources.
After news of the searches broke, Akimoto denied any wrongdoing on Dec. 9, the last day of a 67-day parliamentary session, telling reporters he had "nothing to do with it."
Japan has recently legalized casinos to be operated at integrated resorts in the hope of drawing more foreign visitors and buoying the economy after the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics next year.
The government plans to choose up to three locations for the first batch of complexes expected to start operating in the mid-2020s.
The country's 47 prefectures and 20 ordinance-designated cities are eligible to host integrated resorts. Yokohama, the prefecture and the city of Osaka, Wakayama Prefecture and Nagasaki Prefecture have declared their intentions to bid. Prefectural and local governments, together with operating companies, need to submit their development plans to the government.
The search of Akimoto's offices comes as the governments are stepping up efforts to narrow down their partner companies to bid for host sites.
The Chinese company, headquartered in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, runs online casinos and a sports betting business among other ventures and is suspected of bringing in several million yen in cash from overseas without declaring it.
The foreign exchange law bans any person from carrying more than 1 million yen ($9,100) in cash into the country without informing customs authorities. Violators face a fine of up to 500,000 yen or imprisonment for a maximum of six months.
The Chinese company is believed to have been interested in a casino resort project in Hokkaido. The company reached out to Akimoto immediately after setting up a subsidiary in Tokyo in July 2017, according to sources familiar with the matter.
In August that year, both Akimoto and a top executive of the Chinese firm attended a symposium on integrated resorts held in Okinawa Prefecture.
Akimoto was first elected to the House of Councillors in 2004 after serving as a secretary to a lawmaker. In 2012, Akimoto successfully ran for a seat in the House of Representatives.
Prosecutors had already questioned officials of Rusutsu village in Hokkaido and obtained documents related to a casino project from the Hokkaido and Rusutsu authorities, the investigative sources said. The village with a population of about 2,000 had expressed readiness to host a casino resort.
Rusutsu Mayor Tsunehachi Baya said Thursday he hopes the truth will be revealed soon. "It's impossible that our village was engaged in any wrongdoing," he said.
In late November, the governor of Hokkaido said it will not pursue an immediate bid to construct a casino resort due to local concern about the project's environmental impact.