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Casino quest governor’s hole card?

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

As Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima moves toward a final decision this week on whether to let the state start filling in areas off the coast of Henoko in northern Okinawa Island to build a replacement airstrip for the Futenma base, speculation is growing that he’s holding out for the promise of a casino resort.

Nakaima is under intense political pressure to approve the fill project for the long-stalled Henoko base project, even as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tries to induce a positive reply via robust funding for public works projects in Okinawa.

On Tuesday, the Abe administration approved a budget for Diet consideration that would earmark ¥346 billion for Okinawan revitalization in fiscal 2014.

The administration will also seek financial assistance of at least ¥33 billion annually over the next six years to build a second runway at Naha International Airport.

The ¥346 billion is a 15.3 percent rise over 2013. Most of the increase is for general public works spending and for the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University. But the local pro-base faction, especially in Okinawa’s construction industry, also appears to be pushing for a resort area that includes casino gambling.

Over the past few weeks, Okinawa and Tokyo media have reported that a plan exists to build a casino in the area now occupied by Futenma in Ginowan.

While Okinawa officials wouldn’t comment on the reports, and while Nakaima has not officially spoken of a casino as a condition for approving the offshore fill project, the prefecture has long sought such an enterprise to attract tourists from Japan and nearby parts of Asia.

In 2009, Okinawa announced the results of a two-year survey of residents regarding casino resorts. A question-and-answer section on the prefectural website titled Okinawa Casino Entertainment lists reasons for considering such establishments.

“International competition for tourism in the Asian region will become quite stiff,” the prefecture says. “The casino resorts the central government is discussing include convention centers and restaurants in an integrated complex. Okinawa is also discussing such resorts as one way to solve the tourism issue.”

Estimates are that a casino resort would cost some ¥320 billion, generate about ¥210 billion annually and employ 13,000 people.