Tomakomai IR optimists see hopes dashed again

Naomichi Suzuki

Hope springs eternal in the minds of Tomakomai IR advocates. The answer delivered from the lips of Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki keeps coming back “no,” but what seems to be delivered to their ears is “maybe soon.”

Their frustration is understandable. Tomakomai city was an early mover in Japan’s IR process. This candidate site in Japan’s northernmost prefecture attracted a lot of strong interest from international IR operators; indeed, more than any other non-urban location in the country. At one point, four potential operators—Hard Rock, Mohegan, Rush Street, and Clairvest—had set up local offices in the city.

It’s not too much to say that if Tomakomai had been allowed to move forward with its IR bid, it almost certainly would have been one of the three to obtain a license from the national government, having more firepower than other regional candidates such as Nagasaki and Wakayama.

But the Achilles heel of the Tomakomai bid was always located in the prefectural capital of Sapporo and in public opinion in the wider prefecture.

Former Hokkaido Governor Harumi Takahashi was probably always a supporter of the IR initiative, though she cautiously declined to publicly express her advocacy until her final days in office. Had she decided to run for a fifth term as governor rather than move into national politics, things might have been different for local IR advocates.

Instead, a new governor came into office in April 2019. At first, IR advocates celebrated the young Naomichi Suzuki’s election, especially as he had handily defeated an opposition candidate, Tomohiro Ishikawa, who had pledged to immediately kill off the initiative.

During that gubernatorial campaign, Suzuki declared that he was undecided on the Tomakomai IR initiative, but that he would take a careful look at the issue if elected. Most IR advocates understood his words as meaning that he was actually on their side, but that he just didn’t want to say so openly in light of the unpopularity of casino legalization.

They were shocked seven months later when it turned out that Governor Suzuki meant exactly what he had said on the campaign trail—that he was indeed undecided. More specifically, what Governor Suzuki seemed to be signaling is that he wasn’t going to take the political lead on local IR development, though he may have been prepared to follow.

Suzuki spent his initial months in office watching how the issue was addressed within the Hokkaido Prefectural Assembly. Finally, after two days of talks on the IR issue in November 2019 within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party caucus (which holds a slim majority in the chamber), conservative opinions could not be unified. Seeing this lack of party backing, Suzuki moved to end the matter by declaring that Hokkaido would be passing on the first round of national IR development. As a pretext, he cited the length of time that environmental surveys would take to carry out, but his real reason was clearly the lack of prefecture-wide political support for the initiative.

But “no” was not the answer that the Tomakomai IR advocates had expected nor prepared to accept. A sort of “never say die” attitude crept both into the administration of Tomakomai Mayor Hirofumi Iwakura as well as within some private sector circles.

In these quarters, there were those holding out for any ray of hope that “no” didn’t really mean no, or that the governor could be overruled by his central government patron, Yoshihide Suga, or that somehow, someway, Suzuki could be pressured through dubious pro-IR media reports into changing his mind.

Recently, the ray of hope came from the nine-month delay in the national IR licensing timeline. The Tomakomai city government asserted that there was now sufficient time to complete the needed environmental surveys. And so cue another round of reports in the gaming industry press that “Hokkaido” was thinking about rejoining the IR race.

No, it was just the very same pro-IR diehards grasping at straws, as they have continued to do without rest since November 2019.

It should have come as little surprise, therefore, that last week Governor Suzuki was forced to state once again that his prefecture did not intend to participate in the first round of IR development, asserting that the extra nine months still did not leave sufficient time for surveys and preparations and, in any case, dealing with the Covid-19 crisis needs to be the prefectural government’s priority.

(AGB Nippon)