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Are Casinos in Japan an Unnecessary Gamble?

One writer and Osaka resident shares his opinion on the recent legalization of casinos in Japan.

By 6 min read 1

A couple of years ago, I tackled the hot topic at the time which was: Should Japan allow casinos to operate within its borders? At the time, public opinion was divided, with the majority seemingly against the idea. In light of recent developments, now seems like a good time to revisit the issue.

Casino Politicale

Much in the same way as happened with last year’s “reinterpretation” of Japan’s constitution and the toughening regulation of official secrets, Prime Minister Abe’s government has again decided that it knows best, despite public approval being, at best, tepid.

And so it transpired that last month a bill was passed through parliament that paved the way for bringing casino resorts to Japan. Taking all this into account, it seems we are now looking at “when” rather than “if” casino resorts will come to Japan.

There remain a great deal of unanswered questions however. Where will these resorts be, what will they look like and what steps will the government take to prevent the potential negative impacts on surrounding communities and Japanese society as a whole? Whatever the actual intent and message was, it appears to have been lost amidst rhetoric and bluster from all sides. So far no-one has answered any of my above questions with any semblance of certainty.

You win some, you lose…

The people who go to casinos, especially the kind of casino resorts the Japanese government has in mind, aren’t usually the types who bet $5 here or $10 there. We are talking big money here folks, the kind of people who will gamble away in one spin of a roulette wheel more than you or I earn in a month!

But then again, limited though gambling opportunities are in Japan, there is still the potential to win, and more likely lose, massive amounts of money in a relatively small space of time.

I recall my one and only dalliance with Pachinko about 10 years in Tokyo. A friend of mine showed me the basic rudiments of the game: how to play, how to win and most importantly how to “sell” my prizes for actual money. Some 35 minutes later, I was already down ¥10,000 and showing no signs of a recovery when I decided to walk away.

The fact is, as much as Japan may choose to deny it, heavy gambling and the various facets of its social fallout are already major issues here. Casinos will simply provide another medium to facilitate those habits. Gambling is an addiction. The addict will get his or her fix one way or another, regardless of how much you try to regulate the industry.

The fact is, as much as Japan may choose to deny it, heavy gambling and the various facets of its social fallout are already major issues here.

In the same way as increasing taxes on alcohol and introducing minimum per unit pricing for alcoholic drinks has done nothing to reduce Scotland’s alcohol epidemic, likewise I believe that the current heavy handed regulation of gambling in Japan has done virtually nothing to actually tackle the fundamental causes of compulsive gambling. Poor people gamble because they see it as their only easily accessible means of social mobility. That chance of winning the jackpot and changing your life may be several million to one but when you are desperate, even the most unlikely hope represents a chance nonetheless.

The hangover

Casinos aren’t all about misery and despair though. Having spent some time in Macau while I was living in Hong Kong, I have to say that the first-class hotel suites, excellent food and shows like “Cirque De Soleil” made for a highly enjoyable and memorable experience. Bringing such facilities to Japan would undoubtedly give flagging local municipal budgets a much needed shot in the arm, provided that those companies are also prepared to set aside funds to deal with the social fallout.

Step beyond the resort areas in Macau and you find a small city choking under its own bloated excesses. Money-laundering, drugs, prostitution, whatever your vice, you can find it in Macau, provided you have the funds. As recently as 2013 it was thought that as much as 90% of the millions of dollars passing from mainland China through Macau’s various casinos each month was illegally sourced.

Japan’s issues with organized crime are well documented and no doubt if casino resorts were approved here it wouldn’t be long before local gangs were also demanding their piece of the proverbial pie. But again, much like gambling, organized crime is something Japan still has to contend with, regardless of how many empty pledges the government and police make to “get tough” with perpetrators.

Japan’s issues with organized crime are well documented and no doubt if casino resorts were approved here it wouldn’t be long before local gangs were also demanding their piece of the proverbial pie.

Honestly? Japan needs the money

Perhaps gambling in Japan could be managed the same way the sex trade has been managed in Holland. By decriminalizing it, confining it to certain areas in certain cities and cracking down heavily on any violations of the laws surrounding its regulation, not only does the government ensure children and the vulnerable are protected from these destructive influences, but it also provides a handy source of much needed tax revenue.

And this is the strongest argument put forward by supporters of casinos in Japan today.

Whether we want to admit it or not, Japan may have now reached a point where it can no longer afford not to have casinos. So far possible locations discussed include Odaiba in Tokyo, Fukuoka and possibly reclaimed land in the Osaka Bay area. Each of these areas, if chosen would at least allow a means to separate the casino resort from the surrounding areas. Another possible solution currently being considered is the idea of restricting admission to these resorts to foreign visitors only. However, such a motion is unlikely to prove popular with consumers, and does fly in the face of the idea that casino owners are trying to sell to Japanese consumers that their establishments are safe, family friendly environments.

In any case, we are unlikely to actually see a resort opening any time before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. However, it does seem we are now on an irreversible path towards casinos in Japan. While I have to admit I do still hold a number of reservations about the idea, public opinion does seem to be warming.

However, much like the issue of US military bases in Japan, location could prove a highly divisive issue. Most of my Japanese friends accept that casinos may now be a financial necessity to ensure Japan continues to meet projected tourism growth targets. Still, a “not in my back yard” mentality persists. I just hope the government will handle the concerns of any community that does have to take on a casino resort better than they have relations with the people of Okinawa on the base issue.

Only time will tell, I suppose.

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  • Dale Goodwin says:

    I don’t agree with the premise that the kind of gamblers that would go to casinos are only the heavy gamblers, nor do I believe that the casinos would be taken over by the mafia. If resorts are created around the casinos, as I believe is the plan, they could offer a great place to take vacations for the over-worked Japanese that up to now, required international travel to get to.

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