The Limits of the Abe Government’s Bulldozer Approach

On the issue of IR development in Japan, the Shinzo Abe government has, from start to finish, acted like a political bulldozer, assuming that the opposition parties and the majority opinion of the Japanese people could simply be swept aside by overwhelming force. This approach has indeed taken them a long way forward, but the costs are now mounting and the limits may be in sight.

This characteristic method is being employed once again in relation to the jaw-dropping 500 Dot Com bribery scandal.

As usual in high profile cases, the prosecutors have been (illegally) leaking most of the details to the Japanese news media, and the emerging story is a damning one. If the prosecutors are to be believed, the basic story goes as follows.

On September 28, 2017, 500 Dot Com adviser Masahiko Konno brought 22.5 million yen (about US$207,000) in cash from Hong Kong to Japan, failing to make the required customs declaration.

In the following days and weeks, Konno and his colleague Katsunori Nakazato took bundles of this cash, in bags or envelopes, and delivered cash bribes to six Japanese lawmakers on behalf of 500 Dot Com, which at that time aimed to be licensed as an IR operator in Japan.

The largest sum—3 million yen—was allegedly handed over to state minister of the Cabinet Office Tsukasa Akimoto, who was then in charge of compiling the nation’s IR policy regulations. Akimoto has been arrested by prosecutors and is still being detained.

Apparently guilty of the same crime of bribe-taking, although at the lower sum of 1 million yen each, are five additional lawmakers who so far remain free. Among these five is the very prominent pro-casino lawmaker Takeshi Iwaya, who is a familiar figure at IR industry events, having been a keynote speaker on multiple occasions.

One of the allegedly bribed politicians, Mikio Shimoji, who also happens to be the only one who wasn’t a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has admitted receiving the bribe.

So to understand the current situation: Prosecutors have the testimony of the Japanese 500 Dot Com advisers who have named six lawmakers that they say they bribed in 2017. One of the six admits the charge and the other five deny it. The very same evidence implicates all six, and yet somehow the five ruling party lawmakers would have the world believe that although one politician has admitted the charge, that they are innocent.

Interesting for our purposes is the stark difference in how Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, head of the Japan Innovation Party (Osaka Ishin), handled the matter as compared to the Abe government.

Matsui, as well as his junior colleague, Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura, made very clear that they have zero tolerance for this kind of corruption. They rejected Mikio Shimoji’s offer to resign from the party and they expelled him instead. They followed up with a new policy stipulating that any company or individual connected to the IR industry would no longer be welcome at any of their lawmakers’ fundraising parties.

The Abe government, through the person Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, took the opposite tack, suggesting that 500 Dot Com’s alleged bribery has absolutely nothing to do with IR policy and is nothing more than an irrelevant distraction. There was no talk of punishing lawmakers who might have accepted bribes, no open admonition to anyone thinking about taking bribes, and no new policies to combat bribe-taking within the ruling party ranks. Suga simply pledged to advance IR development as scheduled so that the Japanese people, eventually, would see the positive results.

Hardly for the first time, Abe and Suga are essentially defying anyone to stop them. The public arguments they are making are illogical and even demonstrably false, but they know that the opposition parties are too divided, weak, and generally pathetic to hold them to account. If they leave the general impression that they are thoroughly corrupt—well, so what? There’s no plausible alternative government waiting in the wings, and they know it.

But if the Abe government is insulated from the Japanese public, that’s not equally true for the local governments that are now engaged in IR bids. Many of them can indeed be defeated in elections, and they are thus directly exposed to local public opinion.

So while at the national level the opposition parties are planning to submit legislation that would abolish the 2016 IR Promotion Act and completely reverse the national policy, this effort is almost certain to fail. Most likely, the Abe government will contemptuously dismiss the bill and have little difficulty in doing so.

The outcomes at the local level, however, may indeed be put in jeopardy by the 500 Dot Com bribery scandal.

The conservative Hokkaido governor has already declined to make an IR bid, with the inability of ruling party assemblymen to back the initiative being a key factor. The Chiba mayor has also backed out of the IR race, though he tactfully denies that the major scandal influenced his decision.

The biggest remaining local battleground, obviously, is Yokohama—both because it would likely host the nation’s largest IR, and because the city administration is already battling hostile local opinion opposed to the IR construction initiative at Yamashita Pier. If the 500 Dot Com scandal were to topple the Yokohama IR plans, that would be a massive impact indeed.

Other major bidders, especially Osaka and Nagasaki, are probably less exposed to this scandal because their local publics are more tolerant of the IR initiatives, having been prepared for many years by their political leaders. (AGB Nippon)