Japan dreams of jackpot with legal casinos but critics warn cash grab will deepen gambling addictions
Japan already has a significant gambling problem, with a 2017 government survey showing an estimated 3.2 million people are addicted
At a casino school in Tokyo, croupier-in-training Takuto Saito settles behind a green table and reaches for the roulette wheel, addressing a group of imaginary punters: “Spin up. Place your bets.”
The 24-year-old has never set foot in a casino but he is gambling that new laws opening up the lucrative sector will soon create plenty of jobs for croupiers in Japan.
Opening his palms to fake surveillance cameras on the roof to show there is nothing up his sleeves, Saito enjoys watching how players make their moves and the tense atmosphere around the gambling tables.
Owner Masayoshi Oiwane claims interest has skyrocketed in his casino school, where would-be croupiers learn to deal baccarat games, spin the roulette wheel and supervise betting on the green baize tables.
“Our enrolment has doubled from last year,” he said. “We are seeing an unprecedented level of momentum.”
Japan was long the only developed nation that banned casinos but passed legislation in 2016 paving the way to make the industry legal. On Tuesday, the lower house of parliament passed a bill allowing the construction of three “integrated resort” (IR) facilities combining casinos, convention centres, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues.
Japan is often viewed as the “Holy Grail of gaming” in Asia due to a wealthy population, proximity to China and appetite for other forms of legal gambling, including horse racing and pachinko, a slot machine-style game.
Economists estimate the casino industry could bring in takings of 2-3.7 trillion yen (US$18 billion to US$34 billion) a year, and national and regional governments are set for a jackpot of a combined 30 per cent tax on gaming revenues.
Japan’s government hopes they will become tourist draws, local versions of Las Vegas or Macau that will be a shot in the arm for a stagnant economy and attract business travellers and new tourists.
It has brushed aside opposition from activists, including those concerned about Japan’s already well-documented problem with gambling addiction.
Toru Mihara, an expert on the casino sector at Osaka University of Commerce, said just one single integrated resort could create tens of thousands of jobs and have a “great impact on the local economy”.
“Tourists will come to energise various regions,” he said, urging Japan to pursue conference and exhibition business as well. “This can grow as a new and major industry.”
The legislation, expected to pass the upper house later this month, kicks off a process that will see local regions bid for the right to host one of three IR facilities.
Although no timeline and criteria have yet been set for the process, municipalities have already started contacting possible investors.
Among those who have expressed interest are Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts, which have each suggested a possible US$10 billion investment in a proposed project in the western city of Osaka.
And some foreign casino operators have already begun hiring Japanese workers to work at their overseas locations, hoping to have local staff ready to go when venues finally open in five to six years.
But Japan already has a significant gambling problem, with a 2017 government survey showing an estimated 3.2 million people are addicted.
Many are hooked on the pinball-like pachinko or on pachislo slot machines, which together annually generate 21.6 trillion yen in revenue.
Some 10,000 parlours dot the nation, many readily accessible near train stations, using legal loopholes to let winners exchange tokens for cash.
Japan also has a 5 trillion yen market for government-controlled races of horses, motorcycles, boats and bicycles, along with football betting and a lottery.
Both proponents and critics of casinos say the nation has long neglected its gambling problem and Noriko Tanaka, who heads a group working with gambling addicts, says the casino legislation will only make things worse.
The laws make it easy for gamblers to take out credit lines to play at casinos and lack concrete financial commitments to tackling addiction, she said.
The bill also fails to reserve a seat on casino commissions for gambling addiction specialists, a clause activists had argued for.
To deter addiction, lawmakers have agreed to impose a 6,000 yen entry fee on local residents and limit their visits to 10 times a month. But Tanaka said this wasn’t enough.
“If you are promoting casinos, you also have to face the existing problem of gambling addiction. Japan needs to thoroughly revamp its measures against gambling addiction,” she said.
But aspiring casino dealer Saito said he thought local opposition to the industry would ease when casinos finally start opening their doors.
“I think Japanese people hold excessively negative views of gambling,” he said. “I am quite optimistic about this.”