Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe added a tour of Marina Bay Sands (MBS) to his visit to Singapore late last month to deliver the keynote address at the Asia Security Summit.
Back home, however, plans were unraveling to get a much-anticipated bill through the National Diet to legalize casinos, a policy he is said to support.
Abe’s walk through Las Vegas Sands’ massive and massively profitable super-resort was to include a “scripted plea” from the company to pressure the Diet to act on the troubled bill, or so Chairman Sheldon Adelson told the press. Adelson had vowed to spend “whatever it takes” to win the right to build something even bigger than MBS in Tokyo. But the window for making that happen is closing rapidly, and it’s all but certain the Diet will conclude its regular 2014 session on 22 June without ever bringing the bill to a vote, dashing the hopes of LVS and the rest of the world’s A-list operators of cashing in on a market some analysts believe could be worth as much as US$40 billion over the next decade.
“Time is of the essence,” MGM Resorts Chief Executive James Murren said. “There seems to be a very strong political will to move this forward, and who knows what the environment will be a year or two from now.”
Will, perhaps. Votes, no.
The pro-casino caucus in the House of Representatives, the more powerful of the Diet’s two chambers, is said to number 200 and includes veteran lawmakers close to Abe. In March 2013, not three months after taking office, the prime minister was in front of the House talking about the important role destination casinos could play in boosting foreign tourism.
There is lastly the fact that no one bothered to ask the Japanese people what they think, which at this stage has to be viewed as worse than an oversight.
What little is known about this critical element in the equation was contained in a February report published by investment bank CLSA, which had commissioned a nationwide poll conducted in January 2014 among 1,000 adult men and women divided evenly across five age groups. Results showed that one in five respondents wasn’t even aware a legalization effort was under way, and only 7 percent professed any knowledge of the details. Only 15 percent answered an unequivocal “yes” to the question “Do you think large IRs can boost the economy?” Fewer than 24 percent said they have a “good” or “somewhat good” impression of IRs. More than 51 percent said they believed IRs would result in a “significant increase in crime”. Only 34 percent said they believe the “positive aspects of IRs outweigh negatives”.
The reality is the Japanese people have more important things to occupy them. The world’s third-largest economy has been stagnant for a generation. It was sick long before the tsunami and Fukushima disaster. The economic revival the LDP promised when it was swept back into office in a 2012 landslide has yet to materialize. The soul-searching that is going on now is of a scale not seen since 1945.
Actually, this should have been good news for casino advocates. The JRP is led by three of legalization’s biggest supporters, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, the governor of Osaka Prefecture, Ichiro Matsui, and nationalist firebrand Shintaro Ishihara, a former governor of Tokyo. And yet it may have helped kill the bill at a critical juncture when Hashimoto and Ishihara fell out with each other in May over how far to go in rewriting what the JRP calls the “Occupation Constitution”.
Toru Mihara, an adviser to casino caucus in the House, expressed the uncertainty best when he told The Wall Street Journal he was optimistic the bill would be passed—just “not in the near future”.