Tokyo prosecutors stress legitimacy of dropping charges against recipients of Kawai’s bribes

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Public Prosecutors Office building is seen in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, in May 2020.

Prosecutors stressed the legitimacy of dropping charges against all the people who received money from former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai in a vote-buying case, a decision that has prompted criticism from members of the public and experts, as well as within the prosecutors office.

The special investigation squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office dropped charges Tuesday against all 100 people, including local assembly members, who allegedly received cash from Kawai, 58, in the massive bribery scandal involving the July 2019 House of Councillors election.

A committee for the inquest of prosecution will inevitably question the validity of the prosecutors’ decision.

No systemic campaign

“No one took positive action related to receiving the cash,” Hiroshi Yamamoto, deputy chief prosecutor of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, said at a press conference where he announced that charges would be dropped. Yamamoto repeatedly made this point, stressing the legitimacy of the decision to spare the suspected bribe takers from indictment. One of the 100 suspects has died.

According to a June 18 ruling by the Tokyo District Court, Kawai distributed a total of about ¥28.7 million to the 100 individuals. The highest amount, ¥3 million, went to a former secretary of a Diet member from Hiroshima Prefecture.

Nobuya Okuhara, 78, a veteran Hiroshima prefectural assembly member and former chairperson of the assembly, received a total of ¥2 million from Kawai and his 47-year-old wife, Anri.

Anri was sentenced to 16 months in prison, suspended for five years. Former Mihara Mayor Yoshinori Temma, 74, also received ¥1.5 million from Kawai.

Of the 100 bribe takers, 40 local politicians received at least ¥100,000 each, and their office staff at least ¥50,000.

The court’s decision shows the Kawai couple’s apparent intention to tailor the amount of each bribe according to what it could get them, including how many votes the recipient could deliver. However, the special investigation squad did not differentiate between the amount of money or the recipient’s status, and uniformly dropped the charges against all the suspects.

At the press conference, Yamamoto also stressed that Kawai — who was elected to the House of Representatives several times and had a great deal of political influence — led the vote-buying attempt. He also said the recipients were “passive” with regards to receiving the cash.

“No systemic campaign was acknowledged for the recipients to buy other people. We took into account the fact that they did things like immediately give the money back or just keep it at home,” he said.

Calls to prosecute some

The prosecutors’ handling of the case, however, is quite unusual in a situation where many bribery suspects admitted to taking money. In the past, prosecutors have brought legal action even if suspects were paid only a few thousand or about ten thousand yen.

In 2007, 49 election campaign staff who received ¥5,000 in cash were given summary orders to pay fines in the mayoral election in Wanouchi, Gifu Prefecture.

The special investigation squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office itself, which handles major cases, indicted without arrest a campaign staffer who received ¥200,000 for the 2014 Tokyo gubernatorial election.

At the court hearing of the Kawai couple, local politicians who appeared as witnesses testified how they used the cash they received. A Hiroshima city assembly member who received ¥500,000 talked about using the money for a trip to Guam, while a former member of the city council of Akitakata said part of their ¥100,000 went to buy a gift for a grandchild.

At the hearing, a statement by a politician’s supporter that referred to spending ¥50,000 on pachinko and other activities was also read out.

These testimony showed that not all of the recipients returned the money or kept it at home.

There has been debate within the prosecutors office, with some arguing it will be hard to make a case for election violations if people who received several millions of yen are not prosecuted. It was also asked whether there was room for extenuating circumstances for those who used the money for entertainment.

Some prosecutors strongly felt that at least some of the suspects should be charged. The debate over whether to prosecute continued until the final stage, with arguments made for drawing a line at at least ¥1 million or at least ¥500,000.

At the press conference, Yamamoto said prosecutors considered whether to charge some of the local politicians who received large amounts of money, but that it was difficult to decide based on the amount of money or the number of times they received payments.

Yet even now dissatisfaction is smoldering over the decision to drop all charges. A middle-ranking prosecutor with extensive experience in investigating election violations said: “It’s odd that no one is being prosecuted for receiving ¥3 million. This could lead people to wrongly think it’s okay to accept a bribe.”

In his arguments at the hearing, Kawai’s lawyer referred to the fact that prosecutors had not decided to pursue criminal punishment of the 100 suspects, saying, “The confessions were obtained as a result of prosecutors offering favors in the form of not filing charges or seeking criminal punishment.”

The lawyer called the prosecutors’ investigation highly illegal. The court’s ruling did not acknowledge such alleged behind-the-scenes deals, but the prosecutors’ decision may arouse suspicions.