Japan Becomes A Tougher Sell for 2014

The fears the gaming industry has about legalization of gaming in Japan are coming to fruition. It’s happened many times before. Efforts to pass a casino legalization bill in Japan’s Diet are stumbling amid concerns over problem gambling and other social impacts. Worse, the bill’s biggest supporter, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (l.), has political troubles.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is suddenly looking politically vulnerable, and the casino legalization he is championing looks like it may not happen this year.

A much-anticipated bill to end the country’s longstanding ban on the industry is beset in the current special session of the National Diet by concerns over gambling addiction, crime and other social ills similar to those that prevented the bill from coming to a vote in the Diet’s regular session that ended in June.

What’s different now is that the Abe government is reeling from the resignations last week of Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima in connection with elections scandals, and the prime minister’s ability to influence the bill’s fate may be diminished.

“Abe’s support will decline,” one highly placed observer told Reuters, “and policy implementation will not go smoothly.”

Casino advocates in Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party were targeting the industry’s debut in Tokyo, Osaka and other cities to coincide with the 2020 Summer Olympics in the capital, but if the casino bill is pushed into the Diet’s next regular session, which begins in January, that is looking problematic. Moreover, the bill could founder again, with political attention consumed by more pressing issues, including passage of a national budget, and lawmakers reluctant to take on the controversy.

The current special session ends on November 30.

Gambling flourishes in Asia’s second-largest economy in the form of pari-mutuel betting and the pinball-style machine game known as pachinko, and estimates of the potential of a national resort casino market come in as high as an initial US$15 billion in annual revenue from gaming along. The prospects have attracted an A-list of global operators willing to spend in the billions to win licenses. However, opposition to casinos among lawmakers is proving more stubborn than supporters in the LDP may have realized. Reservations appear to be particularly strong 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.

Those reservations have tended to stem mainly from fears of gambling addiction, and these are playing out in the Diet with wrangling over whether to restrict the industry to all but foreign passport holders, as is done in South Korea and Vietnam, or adopt a less extreme course by imposing entry fees on domestic players, as is the rule in Singapore. But apparently neither idea has proved satisfactory to date.

“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.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations also has joined the debate, throwing its weight behind the opposition. “It is greatly feared that casinos will have many adverse effects, such as causing a rise in gambling addiction or creating obstacles to the sound upbringing of youth,” the group said.

Then there is Tokyo’s popular new governor, Yoichi Masuzoe, consumed with the complexities and expense of preparing for the Olympics, who has dampened enthusiasm by stating that casinos are not a priority for his administration.

As for the Japanese people, polls show support for legalization to be tepid at best.

Abe, who was swept into office in December 2012 on a pledge to rejuvenate an economy that has been listless for decades, has included casinos in his vaunted “Abenomics” program as a vehicle for boosting foreign tourism and investment. But his popularity is taking it on the chin following the resignations of Obuchi and 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 the prime minister’s image and show his commitment to achieving diversity in the service of Abenomics. The scandal is seen as a 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.

With Defense Minister Akinori Eto, also appointed in September, facing questions from opposition lawmakers over his political funding, Abe’s own future could become problematic. Though the LDP  controls a solid majority in the Diet’s lower House of Representatives, memories are still fresh of his first scandal-ridden stint as prime minister, which lasted only a year in 2006-2007 and saw several ministers forced to resign and one commit suicide.