The sure bet that Japan’s parliament would legalize casinos this year suddenly is running more like a longshot.
The latest news has it that key minority party lawmakers are still far from sold on the virtues of rescinding the country’s age-old ban on the industry; and its biggest booster, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is looking politically vulnerable in the wake of two high-profile cabinet resignations.
Concerns are varied—problem gambling, crime, the potential for other adverse social impacts— and these are playing out in the Diet in discussions about restricting the industry to all but foreign passport holders, as is done in South Korea and Vietnam, or imposing entry fees on domestic players, as is the rule in Singapore.
The struggle points up how socially and politically sensitive casinos are in this nation of 128 million, Asia’s second-largest economy, the third-largest in the world, where pari-mutuel wagering flourishes but house-banked gambling has always been illegal, at least technically—yet it flourishes, too, to the tune of an estimated US$30 billion-plus in annual revenue in the form of a traditional pinball-style game called pachinko, an AWP proposition on the surface that dispenses winnings exchangeable for cash on a vast black market that has long been associated with police corruption.
Which explains in part why the opposition to casinos is proving more stubborn than the legislation’s advocates in the LDP have let on. Reservations appear to run particularly deep among members of the party’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, a Buddhist-backed faction whose support is seen as critical to getting the bill through the Diet’s upper House of Councillors, where the LDP alone does not have a majority.
“The hurdle is quite high for both lower and upper houses to enact [the bill]” during the current session, Komeito’s policy chief Keiichi Ishii recently told Reuters.
As for the views of the Japanese people, that’s been a guessing game ever since the legislation was introduced in the Diet last December. But certainly there has been no groundswell of support. Polling going back to the beginning of the year shows opinions to be mixed at best. The latest survey, conducted earlier this month by the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, found 62% of respondents opposed to legalization, with only 31% in support. A recent Kyodo News Service poll showed 63% of respondents opposed against 33% in favor. A few weeks ago, the newspaper Asahi Shimbun published the results of a telephone poll that showed 59% of respondents opposed. Polling conducted around the same time by media giant Nikkei showed the opposite: 59% in favor.
Plans initially called for the first metropolitan casinos to open in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and an A-list of global operators—Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts International, Melco Crown Entertainment, Wynn Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, Genting Singapore among them—has lined up to bid for licenses in a market whose potential is pegged at upwards of US$15 billion in annual revenue out of the gate: that’s just from gaming.
Tokyo, naturally, is to be the showcase, but the city’s popular new governor, Yoichi Masuzoe, whom many see as prime ministerial timber, is decidedly cool to casinos, and that’s dampened enthusiasm. The giant metropolis poses other problems, too, in terms of spiraling construction costs and the expense and complexities of assembling adequate land, factors that already are bedeviling preparations for the Olympics.
And Abe’s ability to influence the legislative process is diminished as his administration tries to recover from the resignations this week of Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima.
Both were appointed in September as part of a cabinet reshuffle that saw five women elevated to ministerial posts in a bid to bolster Abe’s popularity and show his commitment to achieving diversity in the service of Abenomics. Their exit is seen as a serious blow to the government’s ability to push its agenda in key areas such as raising the national sales tax and restarting the nuclear reactors that were shut down after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Both are highly controversial issues.
“Abe’s support will decline,” one highly placed observer told Reuters, “and policy implementation will not go smoothly.”
Expectations now are that the casino bill will likely be carried over into the Diet’s next regular session, which begins in January, and where it will face another uphill battle against more pressing issues, including passage of a national budget, and lawmakers as loathe as ever to take on the controversy.