If you’ve lived in Japan for any length of time or indeed if you’ve visited a few times, you will be aware that contrary to the prevailing stereotype, many Japanese love gambling. The “Keiba” (horse racing) regularly pulls in crowds in the tens of thousands and packed pachinko parlours line streets both urban and rural across the nation.

However, in spite of this, gambling remains, in principle at least, largely prohibited in Japan. Gambling on pachinko is still technically illegal, although the methods for getting around the law in this regard are well-documented. Horse racing does allow gambling, however, this can only be done through the on-course bookmakers. Online gambling and all other forms of sports betting, with the rather bizarre exception of powerboat racing, are banned.

However, the rise of online gaming in recent years as well as the boom in popularity of US style card games like “Texas Hold’em” poker has led to calls from many to soften Japan’s rigid anti-gambling laws.

Now, some of Japan’s political heavyweights want to take it a step further. Later this year, a casinos bill will come before the lower house of Japan’s parliament. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has expressed support for the principle of opening casino resorts in Japan. However, not everyone is on board with the idea. The social ills that stem from gambling are well known, and as such many members of the Komeito party feel that legalizing gambling could do more harm than good.

But let’s look at some realities here. Japan is still running a massive budget deficit. The stagnant economy has shown only the briefest indications of possible revival, and the aging population means that the time when the “demographic time bomb” will finally detonate draws ever closer. Japan needs additional revenue and lots of it. For all the negatives that casinos can potentially bring, the massive tax receipts they generate would give Abe’s flagging economic policy a much-needed shot in the arm.

One possible venue for the first casino is indeed my current residence, Osaka.

Osaka city mayor Toru Hashimoto, for all of his other disagreements with the Abe government, is an avid supporter of the casino plan and the revenues and new job opportunities it would bring to his city.
Hashimoto has even said he hoped legislation could be fast-tracked and a casino opened in the prefecture by 2019, to hopefully cash in on some of the pre-Olympic tourism buzz in the run-up to Tokyo 2020.
This timeline does seem optimistic, to say the least, with the wide-range of opposition to the bill as well as the snail-like pace at which the great behemoth that is Japan’s bureaucracy actually moves.

So, would a casino be a good idea for Osaka, or for Japan as a whole? Let’s look at some of the arguments in greater detail.

Supporters of casinos point to the aforementioned tax revenue and job creation. There have also been a number of ideas aimed at limiting the social impact. One suggestion is to build the casino far from the city centre and control who can have access. Some have even called for the sites to be accessible only to foreign nationals, but such a plan would surely meet with resistance from Japanese voters. In particular one of the proposed sites for the Osaka casino, is an island in the Osaka bay, which would initially at least be accessible only by boat.

Casinos can have positive economic impacts beyond just increasing government coffers. Many cite Macau as an example of how casinos can boost a local economy and revitalize areas in social decline. Much like other currently illegal vices like drugs and prostitution there is also the progressive argument that goes: “These things will happen anyway if the government legislates for them, at least they can control it and society as a whole can benefit from the tax revenues.”

However, as I have already said there are a number of people who, quite rightfully, oppose the very idea of casinos and legalized gambling coming to Japan.

The impact of addiction is huge. For every story of an individual who beat the odds to win big at Vegas, there are hundreds of stories of people who wound up broke, destitute and sometimes even dead after losing it all at the roulette table. The widespread popularity of pachinko shows that Japanese are by no means immune from the dangers of gambling addiction.

I’ve already cited Macau as a positive example of how depressed Japanese cities could use casinos as a means to stimulate their faltering economies. However, there are plenty of flaws in the Macau argument too. Although Macau saw revenues almost 5 times higher than that of Las Vegas last year, much of the money was sourced from “dubious” areas.

It is difficult to give a specific figure, given the often clandestine nature of Chinese money matters. However, research indicates that as much as 90% of the cash that passed through Macau last year from mainland China may have been illegally sourced. Mostly, organized crime figures in China see Macau’s casinos as an easy means of laundering money. Whilst Japan does have stricter controls on the money that is brought in and out of the country, there is no guarantee that we wouldn’t face similar problems here. Much has been speculated down the years about alleged links between certain pachinko operators and North Korean organized crime. It is hard to see how casinos would be any different.

What I’m about to say next may seem somewhat non-PC but it is based on real experience.

The fact is, China and Japan aren’t exactly the best of friends right now. The behavior of China’s Noveau Riche has in a number of recent cases around the world been less than stellar. The prevailing stereotype is that those exceptionally rich individuals are often rude, ignorant of local customs and societal expectations and possess an overwhelming sense of entitlement and superiority. Of course this is hardly a uniquely Chinese phenomena, but given the Chinese predilection for gambling, and if Macau is any indicator, then we should expect a massive influx of rich Chinese tourists, and as such, a possible growing resentment from the Japanese unfortunate enough to live and work close to the casino resorts.

Having considered the various pros and cons, I would say overall I am against the casino idea. Whilst we do need to look at new and innovative ways for Japan to bring in additional revenue, in this case, I believe the negative societal impacts far outweigh the benefits. I lived in Hong Kong for 2 years and I have seen firsthand the damage that can be done when a society begins to cater only for the rich elite at the expense of everyone else.

Whether you are pro or anti-gambling, the fact remains that casinos are by and large a rich person’s domain. They provide very little of benefit to the Japanese working class. However, while I don’t agree with a lot of his policies I can’t help but admire the tenacity and single-minded determination of Osaka’s Mayor Hashimoto. If anyone can make this idea fly then it’s him. As of yet, I remain unconvinced.

Casinos: Taking a Gamble on Japan’s Future

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