Public opinion divided over government plan to legalise casinos

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN News Desk) - Government holds hearings on potential casino-based resorts. 

The government has started holding public hearings nationwide about the establishment of so-called integrated resorts, or IRs, that would include casinos, gatherings that have highlighted again how divided public opinion is over legalising casinos.

The deep-rooted opposition has led to turmoil in some municipalities that are seeking an IR. And with the approval ratings for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet plunging, some politicians have expressed doubt over whether IRs will see the light of day anytime soon. 

On Friday afternoon, a public hearing for the Kinki region was held in Osaka. It was attended by about 80 people, including individuals and representatives of businesses and municipalities. The attendees’ views were divided between people who want the economic benefits an IR would bring and people worried that an IR would lead to an increase in gambling addictions.

An attendee in favour of IRs said, “They would become a nucleus of tourism and give rise to new basic industries.” An opponent said: “Essentially they’d be gambling dens. They’d take customers’ savings and increase gambling addictions.”

Several Kinki municipalities are actively vying for an IR, including Osaka Prefecture and the city of Osaka, Wakayama Prefecture and the city of Wakayama, and Izumisano in Osaka Prefecture. The Osaka prefectural and municipal governments, which hope to open an IR by 2023, have received sales pitches from 10 foreign and domestic companies, among other developments.

“They’ve got a head start,” a senior official of the central government said.

At the end of July, a government advisory panel compiled an outline for an IR system, proposing what it said are “the world’s strictest regulations on casinos.” The regulations would include measures such as making Japanese customers show their My Number individual identification cards.

However, the divided opinions expressed at the public hearing highlighted that the government’s plan has not gained the understanding of the public even in places that are eagerly seeking IRs.

Nine public hearings are planned nationwide in the days through Aug. 29. “I don’t think we can avoid hearing opposing views at any of the venues,” a source with ties to the government said.

In this situation, some municipalities may have slowed down in their moves to host an IR. In December, the Yokohama municipal government joined a suprapartisan group of lawmakers pushing for IRs, with Mayor Fumiko Hayashi demonstrating a positive stance toward an IR.

However, as a July mayoral election was coming up, her enthusiasm waned to the point of saying the plan was “a blank slate.” A Yomiuri Shimbun survey in the middle stages of the mayoral election campaign showed that 71 percent of respondents were opposed to IRs.

At a press conference Thursday, Hayashi did not detail her thoughts but only said: “I will make an appropriate decision while listening to the public and the city assembly. At present, I am neutral.”

A senior city official commented, “It’s a difficult problem because we also can’t ignore the views of the local business community, which is calling for an IR.”

Law’s passage uncertain

The central government has included IRs in its growth strategy for after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, expecting IR operations to start by the early 2020s. The government plans to submit a bill to allow the establishment of IRs to the Diet during an extraordinary session in the autumn. The bill will state a specific operational system, including regulations on casinos.

However, it is impossible to predict when the law could be enacted. Many Komeito members are hesitant about the idea. “With [the Cabinet’s] support rate falling and public opinion split, it will be difficult to get the bill passed [in the Diet],” a senior Komeito official said.

One reason Abe has been supporting IRs is out of consideration of the Japan Innovation Party, which has strong ties to Osaka. Abe is counting on the party’s support for revising the Constitution.

Abe has said he wants an amended Constitution to go into effect in 2020, but the Liberal Democratic Party has essentially shelved a plan to submit its top law revision proposals to the autumn Diet session. “We’re no longer in a place where we can force the IR idea through,” a senior LDP official said.

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