Governor Onaga’s death shakes up Okinawa prospects

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga died suddenly on Wednesday due to complications from pancreatic cancer, throwing local politics into turmoil, with potential implications for the IR industry.

Onaga was an opponent to IRs and his election in November 2014 brought a halt to the long-developed notions of building an IR in Japan’s southernmost prefecture.

In contrast to his predecessor Hirokazu, Nakaima viewed reliance on the gambling industry as being below the dignity of the proud Okinawan culture. While elements of the business community nevertheless remained keenly interested in an Okinawa IR, it obviously wasn’t going to occur under Onaga’s watch.

Gubernatorial elections that had been scheduled for November will now be brought forward to sometime next month.

Most likely there will be two major candidates who emerge, one representing the “All-Okinawa” movement that Onaga led, and another (Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima) who will represent the conservative forces backing the Abe administration’s policies for the prefecture.

The main policy battle line will be over the issue of the construction of the new US Marine air base at Henoko beach, but the election’s outcome may deeply impact IR policy as well.

The conventional wisdom suggests that a Sakima victory could lead to the revival of the local government’s interest in hosting an IR, while a victory by the yet-to-be-determined “All-Okinawa” candidate would lead to the maintenance of the late Governor Onaga’s policy line of opposition to casinos.

Among IR operators, 500.com has been the most visible in Okinawa in recent years, with CEO Zhengming Pan and his potential partner, CEO Kevin McGowen of Les Ambassadeurs Club, pitching their casino ideas to Okinawan businessmen and politicians as recently as a couple of weeks ago.