Japan shuffles toward legal casinos

The land of the rising sun is the land of rising hopes for the world’s casino industry. As I wrote in Whale hunting, Japan style (see page 86), the world’s third largest economy is the last great frontier for gaming, and virtually every casino company in the world wants to be in it. Macau casino companies keep upping the ante, with spending pledges for a Japan project reaching $5 billion.

The article in the October issue of Macau Business points out there’s already a well-established market for gambling, including pachinko parlors with illegal payoff windows next door, Yakuza-run remote broadcast of live casino games from legal gaming jurisdictions, and the world’s most heavily bet horse racing.

For years, Japanese politicians have said that it’s time to make casinos legal, most notably Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who promised to push for casino legalization during his previous, truncated term succeeding Junichiro Koizumi in 2006. Last week, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) introduced casino legislation, and the long anticipated bill is widely expected to pass. This time, casinos are packaged as part of Abenomics, the prime minister’s plan to reform Japan’s economy and lift it out of its quarter century long doldrums.

The draft casino bill outlines a multilayered process for bringing casinos to Japan. The national bureaucracy will draft the rules, while local governments weigh whether they want casinos in their jurisdictions. Against the promise of investment, jobs and (mainly domestic) tourists, there’s the perception of gambling as a seedy activity, embodied by pachinko parlors with their legacy of money laundering, drugs and bribery. Japan’s National Police oppose casino legalization, along with some civic organizations, Buddhist groups and fringe opposition parties.

Gambling also has a reputation for government boondoggles, embodied in overbuilt publicly funded speedboat race courses and overstaffing at horse tracks. A government sponsored theme park construction initiative, with similar goals to casino development, fizzled into a puddle of wasted public money.

Mix in Japan’s inherent social conservatism, and, despite politicians’ support, casinos face an uphill fight. The seven year tease for the world’s casino companies may be over soon, or it may have only just begun.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.