Hokkaido’s IR withdrawal might be a deception

On November 29 of last year, Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki announced that his prefecture would not be participating in the IR race, citing the several years it would take to complete environmental preparations at the Tomakomai site. However, parts of the Japanese media are reporting that, in fact, not only is Hokkaido actually still in the race, but that they are being sized up as one of the three eventual winners.

One of the mysteries of the last month or so has been the behavior of Hard Rock Japan. Why are they continuing their public relations campaigns in Hokkaido after the governor’s announcement? And why have they just hired the very prominent Akira Kurita as their chief public affairs officer for a project that, ostensibly, is already dead?

These media reports provide a plausible, if still unconfirmed, answer.

It is reported that on December 18, Governor Suzuki gathered four North American IR operators—presumably Hard Rock, Rush Street, Mohegan, and Clairvest—and personally informed them that it was his intention to pursue an IR bid at a later date. Then, after the governor left the meeting, another senior prefectural officer told the four operators, in strict confidence, that a plan was afoot within the central government to choose two cities first and then delay the third city’s selection to somewhat later.

The Japanese media reports identify Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga as the person who is pulling all the strings on Japan’s national IR policy, and say he’s already decided that he wants to have Yokohama and Osaka licensed in the first wave, and then Hokkaido selected somewhat later.

One of the reasons why Suga wants to break it up in this way, according to these reports, is because both Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi and Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki are part of his own informal political network, and that having both of them selected at the same time might invite blowback.

While it is difficult to independently confirm Japanese reporting of this nature, it does explain the “mystery” of why Hard Rock Japan and the others have not yet rolled up their IR campaigns in Hokkaido after the governor’s apparently decisive November public announcement. They may have been tipped off behind the scenes that they should stick around.