The roller coaster ride of efforts to open Japan’s casino market continues, with politicians keeping the industry on tenterhooks as to whether or not legislation will be passed in the current session of the Diet.
Although some observers had believed that this session represented the best opportunity to move forward with discussions on the Bill for the Promotion of Integrated Resort Facilities, better known as the “Casino Bill,” the parliamentary deliberations have been repeatedly delayed and the time window for the bill’s passage has narrowed sharply.
The re-election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with a two-thirds majority in July triggered renewed optimism among casino operators that the bill would finally move forward. According to CLSA analysts, the market would be worth at least $10 billion in annual gross gaming revenue from the first year, making it the second-largest in Asia after Macau.
Support and opposition to the Casino Bill cuts through Japanese politics in unusual ways. The larger political parties, whether on the government benches or against the Abe administration, include both lawmakers who are eager to enact the bill, as well as those who are firmly opposed. Generally speaking, however, conservative and especially right-wing lawmakers tend to be enthusiastic about opening domestic casinos, while liberals and especially leftists tend to be against it.
The rival groups are both holding rallies. The Japan Academy of Integrated Resort & Gaming Studies held its 13th annual meeting at a Tokyo area hotel on November 2, including senior lawmakers pushing for the enactment of the bill. Meanwhile, just over a week later the Japan Federation of Bar Associations held a meeting inside the House of Councillors lawmaker office building dominated by voices calling for the bill to be scrapped.
The opponents scored a significant victory on November 14, when Yoshihiko Noda, secretary-general of the Democratic Party (and Shinzo Abe’s predecessor as Japanese prime minister), declared that the Casino Bill “is not a theme that needs to be discussed quickly,” effectively signalling that the executives of the largest opposition political party were now clearly against passage of the bill this year. That view was reiterated Thursday by Kazunori Yamanoi, the Democratic Party executive in charge of legislative strategy.
Renho, the new Democratic Party leader, explained her own view on November 18 as follows: “Personally, I see a problem in the spirit of gambling. I don’t believe that the people of our nation are really understanding of this initiative, including the problems surrounding gambling addiction.”
Indeed, public opinion polls have consistently shown a majority of the general public opposed to hosting casinos in Japan. For example, when the Yomiuri Shimbun polled the residents of Osaka Prefecture—whose local government is perhaps the most eager in the nation to build an integrated resort—in mid-November, the results still came back with 52 percent opposed and only 33 percent in favor of the idea.
While some proponents of the Casino Bill argue that the public is misinformed or do not understand the true nature of what is really being proposed, the fact remains that, for the time being at least, opponents of the Casino Bill have the political wind at their backs, with a majority of the general public associating casinos with addiction, organized crime, and other negative social consequences that they’d rather avoid dealing with at home.
Nevertheless, the Casino Bill retains top-level political advocacy, and Abe and the ruling coalition are secure enough in their own political positions that they could conceivably decide that it is worth their while to ram the bill through, even in the face of the political and popular opposition.
The arguments in favor of such a bulldozer approach, however, are not necessarily that compelling for the ruling party. The main benefit of casinos cited by proponents is that such facilities would boost tourism revenues, especially in terms of the amount of money visitors from places like China could be expected to spend while in Japan.
In this context, Masahiro Terada, senior manager at PwC Consulting, notes, “the phase of Chinese tourists coming to Japan and engaging in “explosive buying” of luxury goods is already ending, and so we need to provide new reasons for tourists to come here.” But with the actual opening of a casino estimated to be in 2023 at the earliest, it may be difficult to persuade politicians to defy public opinion today on behalf of potential economic benefits eight or more years in the future.
Still, it does appear that deliberations on the bill, at least, are poised to move forward. The clearest indication comes from Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary-general of the ruling party, who stated on November 22 that “the occasion is ripe. I understand that we will move into deliberations.”
It is unlikely, however, that enough time remains in this session to allow the legislation to pass both houses and into law. If it doesn’t pass, then the bill will probably be kicked much further down the road. In the ordinary Diet session to open in January, the Abe administration is expected to prioritize other legislation that it regards as being more crucial, including possible debate on amending the national Constitution. Compared to matters such as defense and trade policy in the Trump era, the Casino Bill is predicted to have great difficulty finding space on the legislative timetable.
Even should the Bill for the Promotion of Integrated Resort Facilities beat the odds and pass the Japanese Diet this year, this represents only the fundamental enabling legislation. It will have to be followed by much more specific legislation that provides the details of implementation. The Abe government is known to have compiled a full draft, but it has yet to reveal its precise plans even to its allies in the Diet or in the private sector.
As yet, it remains unclear if that plan will ever see the light of day.
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