Chinese firm may have targeted Akimoto in attempt to break into Japanese casino business | The Japan Times
Sunday 29th December 2019
A Chinese company suspected of bribing House of Representatives member Tsukasa Akimoto may have approached him in a bid to turn itself around through casino operations in Japan, informed sources said Saturday.
The Shenzhen-based online sports lottery provider, 500.com, saw its sales tumble after peaking in 2014, according to sources familiar with the situation and a private credit research agency.
The company, founded in 2001, logged record sales of ¥9.4 billion in 2014, a year after its stock listing on the New York Stock Exchange. But its sales plunged to ¥1.6 billion in 2015 and to ¥170 million in 2016, leaving an operating loss of ¥5.8 billion.
500.com set up a Japanese unit in July 2017. It organized a casino-related symposium in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, in August the same year to increase its name recognition. Akimoto was asked to give a keynote speech at the event.
The company initially planned to pay Akimoto ¥500,000 for the speech. But it raised the amount to ¥2 million after learning, three days after the speech, that Akimoto would became state minister in charge of a government plan to introduce casinos in the country.
When the Lower House was dissolved for a snap election on Sept. 28, 2017, 500.com gave ¥3 million in cash to Akimoto as a financial contribution to his election campaign.
Public prosecutors allege that the financial contribution was a bribe aimed at receiving preferential treatment from Akimoto for its attempt to launch a casino resort in Japan, the sources said.
Akimoto's ties with 500.com further deepened in December of that year when the lawmaker -- who had been appointed state minister in charge of integrated resorts -- made a three-day visit to China, including a visit to the company's Shenzhen headquarters, according to sources familiar with the matter.
During the visit, 500.com executives "conveyed their wish to be allowed to enter the Japanese casino market after related bills clear the Diet," the sources said.
Then the executives tried to make a good impression on Akimoto by emphasizing that 500.com was working hard to mitigate the negative impact of gambling on people and society, without elaborating, the sources said. The executives also told Akimoto that 500.com could bring its huge customer base in China to Japan if it was allowed to enter the Japanese market, according to the sources.
Akimoto acknowledged the need to "bring foreign visitors to Japan under its inbound tourism policy and encourage them to spend their money" in Japan, the sources quoted Akimoto as saying to the executives. Then he asked the executives to "work hard" to realize their goal, the sources said.
Prosecutors suspect that the entire trip may have been a case of wining and dining arranged by 500.com, as all expenses of Akimoto's trip were shouldered by the company. They are also investigating whether Akimoto's side made any unlawful demands to the company in return for promising favors to the company by taking advantage of his Cabinet post.
Regarding the China trip, Akimoto himself has explained it as an "inspection" of casino operations in China. As well as the Shenzhen visit, Akimoto also inspected a casino in Macau during the three-day trip.
On Wednesday, prosecutors arrested three people related to 500.com for allegedly bribing Akimoto.
The charges against them also included inviting Akimoto and his family to Hokkaido in February 2018 and shouldering their travel expenses.
The company showed its intention to invest in a Sapporo-based tourism company that was planning to open a casino report.
Akimoto was also arrested in the bribery case. He has denied the allegations.