Taking the temperature of the casino debate

The Japanese language includes the idiomatic expression “ondosa,” which literally means “a difference in temperatures.” However, it often appears in newspapers to represent a situation in which various parties don’t quite see eye-to-eye—that they view a matter with disparate levels of support or commitment. When it comes to the legalization of casinos in Japan, there are vast temperature differences.

On the one hand, there is considerable enthusiasm for the Integrated Resorts Promotion Law within the Shinzo Abe administration, some local governments such as that of Osaka, and among potential foreign investors.

On April 4, Prime Minister Abe himself launched the “Headquarters for the Promotion of Designated Zones for Integrated Resorts,” which is supposed to map out many of the details of the follow up legislation expected to be passed into law this autumn. The government has yet to reveal substantial information about the precise shape of what they are prepared to authorize, although it is expected that no more than three IRs will be given the nod in the first round of development.

Likewise, the Osaka Prefectural Government continues to advance its plan to open the first of the nation’s IRs at Yumeshima island in Osaka Bay. At a meeting with local business leaders on February 6, Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura explained, “Yumeshima is to become the focal point for international tourism for Osaka. It will become a very important base for driving economic results.”

There is also no doubt that major players in the international casino industry are keenly interested in a market that some believe could eventually rival the size of Macau. Several of these casino companies have mooted such figures as a US$10 billion investment, or even “whatever it takes” to get in at the ground level of Japanese casino development. There is the strong feeling that once the Japanese IRs are up and running, that they will dwarf most other international markets.

Perhaps. But political resistance may prove to be much stronger and more stubborn than the international operators yet realize. The notion of opening casinos in Japan remains deeply unpopular with the general public, and even the major news media outlets have been highly skeptical.

Pachinko, racing unlikely in the firing line

Japan’s government is unlikely to table a bill to restrict horse racing or its pachinko industry in tandem with regulation to introduce casinos into the country, Union Gaming said in a note. “Ultimately we believe the legislature has enough on its hands in the form of the IR bill and is unlikely to touch the existing frameworks of pachinko, horse racing, etc. Further, given that pachinko is a homegrown industry we are inclined to think it could actually get some form of legislative support (protection), especially in the context of the likelihood of foreign-owned IRs.”

Osaka strip seen taking on Macau/Vegas

The building of an “Osaka Strip” involving three or more operators could potentially give Macau and Las Vegas a run for their money, says Steve Gallaway, managing partner of Global Market Advisors. The firm formulated a number of scenarios for IRs in Japan in a white paper titled “White Paper: Japan Integrated Resorts”. “Japan has the potential to be one of the largest gaming markets in the world, generating up to $24.2 billion at six different locations by 2030,” said Gallaway in the executive summary.

Most ordinary Japanese do not associate the opening of IRs with their own economic prosperity and that of their communities, but rather expect them to become a magnet for crime, addiction, and other social problems. Every local government eager to allow casinos within their jurisdiction can expect to face citizens’ movements of various size and strengths to arise in opposition.

It is already occurring in Osaka. On March 25 an anti-casino citizens’ group held an initial meeting that attracted almost one thousand participants. Indeed, a poll of Osaka residents by the Asahi Shimbun in late February found that 60 percent of the people opposed the establishment of a casino in their city and only 31 percent supported it. The opponents overwhelmingly explained their position by citing their belief that hosting a casino would have a strong negative impact on law and order in their community. Even many members of the Osaka chamber of commerce are opposed to casinos, unconvinced that the local economic benefits would be as robust as advertised.

Proponents of IRs acknowledge that the Japanese public has yet to be won over, but they assert that much of the opposition is based upon misunderstandings.

On the surface, both sides appear to agree on the need to enact legislation to combat gambling addiction, which is already believed to be a major problem in Japan due to the prevalence of pachinko. Recent studies have presented alarming estimates about how deeply Japanese society is penetrated by gambling addiction related problems. Both ruling coalition and opposition lawmakers have set up project teams on gambling addiction and are currently formulating countermeasures.

Noriko Tanaka, leader of The Society Concerned about Gambling Addiction and the only prominent activist in the field who lobbies all political parties, is skeptical that the forthcoming anti-addiction legislation will have the teeth needed to truly address the problems. She tells AGB that she worries that even the lines of responsibility for tackling gambling addiction will not be made clear, leaving those who profit from gambling revenues in charge of the anti-addiction policies. She also feels that there is rush to pass something called “anti-gambling addiction legislation” simply to feign that the government is seriously grappling with the problem, while in reality little thought is going into shaping effective countermeasures.

At any rate, it is clear that the Abe government and other proponents still have a long way to go in order to gain public acceptance of their plans to build IRs. Unless they present policies on policing crime and anti-addiction that are widely deemed to be credible and effective, they may still be facing 2-to-1 public opposition to casinos going forward.