Saturday, May 15, 2021

Former Japan farm minister Yoshikawa indicted on bribery charges

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Former agriculture minister Takamori Yoshikawa was indicted Friday by prosecutors without arrest for alleged bribery charges, after receiving ¥5 million from the former president of Akita Foods, a Hiroshima Prefecture-based egg producer, over several years.

Yoshikawa, 70, resigned as a Lower House member in late December over the scandal, citing health reasons, and has also left the Liberal Democratic Party.

The controversy is a political blow for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government, and is likely to be the subject of inquiries by opposition parties when the Diet convenes on Monday.

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Who is Takamori Yoshikawa?

Yoshikawa was an LDP member in the Lower House representing a district in Hokkaido that includes parts of Sapporo.

He once worked as a secretary for the late Kunio Hatoyama, who served as internal affairs minister in 2008 in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Taro Aso, the current finance minister.

After three terms as a member of the Hokkaido Prefectural Assembly, Yoshikawa won a seat in the 1996 Lower House election — the same year Suga won his first Diet seat.

In 2008-09, he served as deputy trade minister in the administrations of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Aso. He was also deputy agriculture minister under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013-14, and then agriculture minister from October 2018 to September 2019, also under Abe. Yoshikawa is close to powerful LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, and a key member of his faction.

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What are the allegations against him regarding Akita Foods?

In July of last year, prosecutors were investigating Akita Foods in a separate bribery case involving former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, who is close to Abe and Suga, and his wife Anri Kawai, an Upper House lawmaker.

They learned of Yoshikawa’s connection with Akita Foods when they found out that the Japan Poultry Association, an industry body involved with agricultural standards for which former Akita Foods representative Yoshiki Akita served as an executive, had lobbied him in November 2018. Yoshikawa was agricultural minister at that time.

Akita said the industry body wanted Yoshikawa and the farm ministry to oppose efforts by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) to change animal welfare standards to reduce stress in livestock such as chickens.

Japan did later object to those efforts, which would have forced poultry farms like Akita Foods to spend a lot of money to meet the new standards.

The investigation into Yoshikawa picked up steam at the end of last year. He agreed to voluntary questioning by prosecutors, reportedly telling them on Dec. 21 that he had accepted the money but intended to return it.

Yoshikawa is alleged to have received ¥2 million in November 2018 and then another ¥3 million in March and April 2019. But by early this month, prosecutors suspected that Yoshikawa had received a total of ¥18 million from Akita Foods since 2015, according to Kyodo News.

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Why is this bad news for Suga and Nikai?

For Suga, Yoshikawa was a trusted ally who was a key supporter in his September 2020 campaign to lead the LDP and worked to lobby other party members to back him. Both were also members of the “class of 1996,” elected to the Diet the same year.

Suga is already facing low support rates in public opinion polls due to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also faces tough questioning by the opposition once the Diet opens on Monday about statements he made as chief Cabinet secretary in connection with Abe’s use of funds to subsidize parties for supporters.

The former prime minister was forced to correct the record and apologize last month, admitting his office had helped fund the parties after previously telling the Diet no subsidies were made, and Suga was forced to apologize as well. Now, Suga could also face questions about his relationship with Yoshikawa.

For Nikai, Yoshikawa’s investigation is likely to further increase concern within the LDP about his leadership. Two other Nikai faction members have already been arrested.

Anri Kawai, who is being indicted in a vote-buying scandal, is a special member of the Nikai faction. Lower House member Tsukasa Akimoto, also a Nikai faction member, was arrested in 2019 in relation to a bribery scandal involving a Chinese firm seeking to establish an integrated casino resort in Japan. He remains in the Diet but has left the LDP.

What will happen to Yoshikawa’s seat now that he’s resigned?

A by-election is scheduled for April 25 in the Hokkaido No. 2 district, and the campaign kicks off on April 13.

The LDP is expected to decide on a candidate sometime this month. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Communist Party are now discussing whether to back the same candidate to run against the LDP candidate. Nippon Ishin no Kai is also thinking about fielding its own candidate.

Senior LDP officials have already expressed concern about a voter backlash against the LDP in the election. LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura said on a TV program on Jan. 5 that a loss in the Hokkaido No. 2 district, as well as a loss that same day in another by-election in Nagano Prefecture, would badly damage the Suga administration.

The Nagano by-election for an Upper House seat would replace CDP lawmaker Yuichiro Hata, who died on Dec. 27 after contracting the novel coronavirus.

While Shimomura also hinted that a general election could be held the same day as the two by-elections, he said that would be up to Suga.

When asked at his Jan. 4 news conference about this year’s political schedule and the dissolution of the Diet by October, Suga said that was likely to be “sometime in the fall,” which he later corrected to “sometime by the fall.”

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