New Life for Japan Casino Bill

The lower house of Japan’s Diet has finally begun formal debate on a much-anticipated casino legalization bill. As late as last week the bill looked to be dead for 2014, but the move considerably improves the chances it will be passed when the legislature meets for a special session this fall. Economy Minister Akira Amari (l.) believes his boss, PM Shinzo Abe, has the votes.

The lower house of Japan’s National Diet commenced debate last week on a bill to legalize casinos amid renewed hopes that the measure, which appeared dead for 2014, will be enacted into law later this year.

The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in December, crafted by a pro-casino caucus of 200 members with the reputed backing of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. Some analysts estimate a market of a dozen or so casinos centered on major resorts in Tokyo and Osaka could generate US$40 billion in gaming revenue over the next decade, and supporters are promoting legalization as a tourism-boosting measure that could substantially aid the recovery of Japan’s stagnant economy.

“The intention is to increase competitiveness and enhance the attractiveness of our tourist destinations,” Hiroyuki Hosoda, the LDP lawmaker who heads the caucus, told the committee on Wednesday.

“Our ‘Visit Japan’ and Abenomics policies need this policy,” said Masaaki Taira, another LDP lawmaker. “The ‘Godfather world’ is over.”

Abe is believed to concur, and the latest is he will include resort-scale gaming as a plank in an economic growth strategy he is scheduled to unveil later this month.

Economy Minister Akira Amari says the bill should have enough votes to pass, although there wasn’t enough time to bring it to a vote in the Diet’s regular session, which ended Sunday. But getting the measure to the committee debate stage, which looked doubtful even a week ago, significantly boosts its chances for passage in a shorter special session expected to be convened in the fall.

“I want to pass it in the lower house at the beginning of the next session of parliament, then enact it without fail in the upper house,” said Hosoda.

“If a vote is held, those in favor will be in the majority,” Amari told reporters earlier this month, acknowledging at that time that allaying concerns about casinos’ potential social negatives would be an important part of the process. “I think there is know-how around the world about developing it as a healthy pastime and tourist attraction.”

In this regard the support of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is seen as a key to the LDP’s achieving the broad legislative consensus it seeks, especially given that there is little public awareness of the bill and to date no active grassroots support. The DPJ’s assent is believed to have been critical to getting the bill to the debate stage, and it will be critical again to getting it through the upper House of Councillors, where the LDP’s majority is slim and support for gaming is not as strong.

The stance of the LDP’s coalition partner, New Komeito, is another unknown. Lay Buddhist organizations dominate New Komeito’s political base, and the party is believe to be divided on the issue. However, New Komeito lawmaker Masakazu Hamachi, who serves on the cabinet committee debating the bill, has said that once debate began, the bill had a good chance of passage in the fall session.

The support of Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe is another key, and that, too, is in doubt. Japan’s capital and largest city and the heart of its economic and cultural life is hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics, which casino supporters see as perfect timing for launching the market. Masuzoe, a popular independent seen by some as a rival for the prime ministership, has said, however, that he doesn’t consider casinos necessary to economic revitalization and they are not a priority for his administration.