Viva Odaiba! Ishihara dreams of casinos in the bay

by Mayumi Negishi

Cigarette smoke wafts out of noisy pachinko parlors, crowds armed with racing forms jostle one another on trains on horse racing days, and lines form in front of lottery ticket booths. You may or may not call it gambling, but playing to test your luck has grown into a huge industry in Japan.

The next step is obvious, says Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, especially after contemplating the vacant lots that occupy huge expanses of Tokyo’s waterfront district. Build casinos in Odaiba, he says.

“Tokyo is the only major city without a casino,” the governor said in a recent meeting with ruling party politicians. “I’ll do anything to earn money.”

Odaiba, which already has an amusement park and shopping malls for children and nongamblers, can be transformed into a casino park that can cater to the entire family, he said.

“The governor really is serious,” said a top metro official.

But not only do critics and public officials hesitate over bringing slot machines into Tokyo; the idea remains far from realization as ever.

Ichiro Tanioka, president of the Osaka University of Commerce, agrees with Ishihara that a casino in Odaiba would help solve the metropolitan government’s budgetary problems.

Using a formula used in the United States to calculate potential casino revenues, Tanioka, who teaches a class called “Gambling and Society,” says taking into account the population in the surrounding area and its income, “Odaiba would become one of the world’s top places to gamble.”

Tanioka also says Odaiba’s relatively isolated location and small local community makes it easier to control crime and ensures community opposition would be minimal.

But although the governor has said that gambling addiction and crime do not necessarily come with the family-type casino establishments he has in mind, Tanioka is skeptical.

“The Japanese are not used to casino gambling, and may be more prone to addiction,” says Tanioka. “And crimes necessarily occur in places where many people gather, even in places like Disneyland.”

Over half of tax revenue in Las Vegas goes toward public safety — some $163 million of the city’s fiscal 2000 budget.

Before casinos can be built in Tokyo, the metro government must ensure a certain percentage of profits and tax revenues are funneled back to programs to fight addiction and crime, Tanioka said.

The 5.8 trillion yen pachinko industry and horse racing establishments should also be taxed for these purposes, he said.

But a more immediate obstacle stands in the way before glittering casinos can sprout in Tokyo Bay.

Gambling and gambling establishments that deal in cash are illegal in Japan, under criminal codes 185 and 186.

Although Ishihara has been lobbying Diet members about changing the law to allow local governments to run casinos, little work has been done by Tokyo Metropolitan Government officials to ascertain the idea’s potential.

When asked if the city’s Bond Section in the Finance Bureau, which oversees lotteries, would be in charge of administrating casinos, an official vehemently shook her head.

“Lotteries are different,” she said of the institution that raked in 63.1 billion yen for public works projects in fiscal 1998. “People do not lose themselves to them, and it does not cultivate a fondness for gambling.”

Not only do casinos offend public officials’ sensibilities, officials are also reluctant to begin groundwork on a project that is a dead-end so long as gambling is illegal.

“Casinos just don’t fall under any part of Tokyo’s bureaucracy,” said an official at the Waterfront Subcenter Development Promotion Office, which develops projects in the area.

And so, studies on the feasibility and possible economic benefits of the idea have been left in the hands of a single official, Junichi Ide, of the Bureau of Policy and Information.

However, having other duties, Ide has so far only had time to collect articles from abroad to study “what a casino actually is” and respond to the many calls from the public each time Ishihara mentions casinos, he says.

“Public interest is extremely high,” said Ide, who says he answers some 30 calls on casinos on a given day.

In the meantime, Ishihara, who boasted that he was a man of ideas as well as action during his gubernatorial campaign, remains stalled, and the vacant lots in Odaiba remain empty.

So far his ideas for the reclaimed area in Tokyo Bay have ranged from starting a new manufacturing industry of midsize passenger airplanes there to creating a Tokyo Grand Prix, similar to the Monaco Grand Prix. Neither has had traction.

But Ishihara remains doggedly dedicated to his casino dream, despite his own lack of enthusiasm for gaming.

“I’ve gone once or twice before, but I don’t like it that much,” he said. “I’ve never won. I’m not good (at gambling).”