Problem gambling fears stoke opposition

As both cities and operators jostle for position in their efforts to host Japan’s first casinos, some may be underestimating one key factor. The single-biggest political obstacle faced by local governments and international operators as they select possible locations for Japanese IRs is the intense public fear about potential negative effects from gambling addiction.

Local communities do not want to see their own sons and daughters become addicted to slot machines and table games, nor do they want to see addicts from afar roll up and cause disruption within their quiet towns. To date, not a single opinion poll has shown a majority or even a plurality in favor of hosting casinos in any part of Japan.

Policymakers are clearly aware of this major challenge and so it is little surprise that the officials and experts compiling the IR Implementation Bill are reportedly adopting a highly restrictive approach. The plan will likely limit the casino element to within a single, small portion of each IR, with entry tightly monitored and controlled. 

In an innovation that is likely to be particularly controversial, Japan residents may be required to present a MyNumber identification card. The MyNumber system, too, is decidedly unpopular. As of May, only about 9 percent of the Japanese public had obtained such a card, with the large majority palpably unenthusiastic about a system that gives the government a greater degree of information about their personal activities.

This could even have an effect on Japanese willingness to visit a future casino. 

Meanwhile, the specific anti-addiction measures being proposed for the next legislative session in the autumn are, for the most part, simply being copied from what has been done in other jurisdictions, and have little or nothing to do with indigenous efforts to combat gambling addiction.

There is a very good reason for that—because gambling addiction is a social malady that has been almost entirely ignored by Japanese officials up until this point. 

Tokoname seeks IR at airport site

The city council of Tokoname has called on Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura for an accelerated feasibility study for siting an IR within their municipality. Tokoname city is host to Chubu Centrair International Airport, and their concept is that an IR might be built on the same reclaimed island upon which the airport itself sits. City Council chairman Kazutoshi Kawahara was quoted by the local media as saying, “We should firmly deal with the issue of gambling addiction and build a wonderful IR on the airport island.”

Hokkaido eyes single resort 

The Hokkaido prefectural government has reportedly decided that only one IR licensing bid from the local region will be submitted to the national government. At least three municipalities had expressed an interest -- Tomakomai city, Kushiro city and Rusutsu village. The prefectural government will reportedly wait until the expected IR Implementation Bill is passed into law, and then it will establish a committee of local experts to select the site from among the candidate municipalities.

What little statistical information exists about problem gambling is contained within two surveys affiliated with the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. A 2014 survey estimated that there were roughly 5,360,000 problem gamblers in Japan, making up about 4.8 percent of the nation’s population. A different survey released in March of this year put the number at 2,830,000, or 2.7 percent of the population.

In an exclusive interview with AGB, Yukiko Kawaguchi of Uekusa Gakuen University, one of Japan’s handful of scholars tracking the issue, says that she believes the true number probably lies between these two figures. She suggests that those who are hardcore addicts may be closer to the 2.7 percent figure, and those with less intense addictive tendencies could reach close to the 4.8 percent mark. The specific results depend, she believes, on which definitions one uses to identify problem gamblers. 

Scholars agree that the overwhelming source of Japan’s current gambling addiction problem is pachinko. A 2008 study by Kensuke Ohta of Sapporo Ohta Hospital found that 91 percent of his patients were involved with pachinko.

In fact, 75 percent of the problem gamblers he worked with were addicted to pachinko alone, with no connection at all to horse racing or any other legal or illegal form of gambling in Japan. However, these legions of problem gamblers have remained “invisible” to Japanese policymakers because pachinko remains legally classified as a form of leisure activity and not as a form of gambling. An open admission of Japan’s very serious and mostly untreated gambling problem would inevitably shine a harsh light on the central role of pachinko addiction, and policy makers have so far been highly reluctant to grapple with such an entrenched and wealthy industry.

Professor Kawaguchi reports that the “average” problem gambler in Japan tends to be a male who first began spending a lot of time at pachinko parlors during his university days. He might later enter a company as a salaryman and have his own family, but as the years pass he acquires a growing debt from his gambling activities, which may gradually slip further and further out of control.

In the vast majority of cases, families try to deal with their own problem gambler privately so as to avoid public shame and because they don’t know what they can really do about it.

This often encompasses other family members trying to pay off the gambling debts of their loved one. Some few thousands of addicts are eventually treated at a hospital or join the thousand-or-so strong Gamblers Anonymous, but access to these treatment options remain far below the level of the actual societal need.

What concerns Professor Kawaguchi most is that even some of the most basic research about gambling addiction remains to be done in Japan. The available statistics are not reliable, and credible information about effective prevention and treatment strategies is lacking. Essentially, the Japanese national infrastructure to combat gambling addiction has yet to be built.

Kawaguchi observes, “The recovery rate from gambling addiction is not so bad, so if the government makes an effort, it can improve the situation. As the first step, though, we need more research.”