$2.5 billion deposit certificate scam shocks Japan Banker says he went too far to keep customer happy

August 14, 1991|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO — In a country famous for personalized customer service, Tomomi Maekawa told the authorities he was a banker who wanted to please.

So when one of his biggest depositors came to his branch of a little-known Osaka credit union in tears a year ago, officials say, he began to issue a series of 13 fake deposit certificates worth about $2.5 billion.

For thus going the extra mile for a customer, Mr. Maekawa, 58, was arrested yesterday and charged with the biggest bank fraud in Japan's history.

Also arrested was Mr. Maekawa's customer, Nui Onoue, 61, a former waitress with reported underworld connections, who opened her own restaurant in 1967 and by last year owned two of the classiest Japanese restaurants in Osaka, Japan's second-biggest city, with a reputed annual gross of more than $7 million each.

With Mr. Maekawa's help, Ms. Onoue was said by Japanese newspapers to have used the certificates in ways that helped her become the biggest individual stockholder in the world's biggest corporation, NTT, Japan's telephone company; the world's biggest bank, Dai-Ichi Kangyo; and in the Industrial Bank of Japan.

"I was afraid of losing such a major client," Japanese news reports quoted Mr. Maekawa as having said. "I believed her when she promised to return the money soon. I made a big mistake."

After his year of financing operations on a scale few credit union managers ever contemplate, Mr. Maekawa's arrest gave the obscure branch banker one last day as one of the movers and shakers of the world's second-biggest economy.

News of his arrest cut short an afternoon rally on the already

shellshocked Tokyo Stock Exchange, which ended the day with yet another loss.

The scandal also added new pressures on Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who has heard repeated calls for his resignation since Japan's avalanche of financial scandals began late May.

Also moved and shaken was the Bank of Japan, the country's central bank, which for the first time let the public see that it was worried that a string of gigantic bank frauds this summer may have account-holders wondering whether their deposits are safe.

The central bank organized a consortium of bankers and credit union officials to guarantee that all withdrawal requests at Mr. Maekawa's credit union would be met.

Mr. Maekawa's alleged misdeeds far outstrip, in sheer money terms, a similar scam involving a mere $1.9 billion in fake deposit certificates issued by a deputy branch manager at Fuji Bank, the world's fifth-largest financial institution.

The Fuji Bank scam reigned as the country's biggest-ever bank fraud for all of 3 1/2 weeks.

Mr. Maekawa's credit union, Toyo Shinkin, serves only the northern half of Osaka Prefecture and ranks 56th among Japan's 446 credit unions.

But so thoroughly has it been plundered -- with the fake certificates amounting to 95 percent of its deposits -- that the 604-employee institution has soared past Fuji Bank in Japan's rapidly expanding Financial Hall of Shame.

As is becoming common in Japan, where financial scandal is uncovered, the whiff of organized crime wafts up.

Japanese newspapers said private investigators had reported that for at least one period last year, Ms. Onoue's money was under management of a ranking member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's biggest Yakuza crime syndicate.

The newspapers said that by night her restaurants were filled with executives from brand-name Japanese companies and government offices but that by day the traffic consisted of stockbrokers and men the Mainichi newspaper described as "gangster types."

Meanwhile, the Japanese news service Kyodo reported this morning that in addition to the loans obtained with Mr. Maekawa's certificates, Ms. Onoue had obtained more than $2 billion in loans from the Industrial Bank of Japan, one of the country's most sophisticated financial institutions, and its affiliates.

The bank reclaimed about $350 million of that after learning that bosses of the underworld frequent her restaurant, Kyodo said, but there were no reports of how much she might still owe the bank.

The arrest of the branch banker and the restaurateur is the fourthand by far the biggest in a string of fake-deposit frauds turned up this summer, of which the Fuji Bank scam had previously been the biggest.

Like the others, it was turned up not through any diligence of Japan's banking regulators but by a lender who became suspicious of the immense deposit certificates put up as "collateral" for a loan.

The fact that this scam -- and the others -- went on for a year or more before being discovered has led some analysts to wonder how many others were hatched in the easy-money "bubble economy" of the late 1980s and how many more will come home to roost now that the real estate and stock market bubbles have burst.

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