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Casino debate casts spotlight on Japan’s gambling addicts, therapists who try to help

by

Kyodo

Although lawmakers have ditched plans for now to repeal a ban on casinos, the issue has cast renewed attention on the problem of pathological gamblers, such as those who go into debt to satisfy a pachinko addiction.

A health ministry panel has estimated there are 5.36 million gambling addicts in the country, or 4.8 percent of the adult population. And addiction psychologists say up to 1 million people may be predisposed to a severe addiction that requires medical attention.

“The ratio is higher than the average 1 to 2 percent of other countries,” said Yasunobu Komoto, head of the psychiatry section at the National Hospital Organization Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

He cited the widespread presence of pachinko and slot machine parlors across Japan as one reason why so many people are drawn in.

Gambling addicts usually kick the habit sooner or later. But what it troubling, experts say, is that 10 to 20 percent remain in trouble and eventually file for personal bankruptcy or even commit suicide.

Gambling is by and large banned in Japan, except for publicly run betting on horse and bicycle racing. A group of nonpartisan legislators submitted the so-called casino bill in December 2013, calling it a pillar of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s growth strategy. The bill would allow operators to open integrated casino and leisure resorts to boost tourism and beef up regional economies.

Earlier this month, the lawmakers who backed the bill shelved their plan to seek its passage during the current Diet session. They will try to reintroduce it during the next ordinary session in early 2015.

The moves in the Diet in turn drew public attention to the problem of gambling addiction and led to calls for better help for those it affects.

In June of last year, the Kurihama addiction center opened an outpatients’ ward for pathological gambling. Nearly 90 percent of the patients there are addicted to playing pachinko pinball and slot machines, Komoto said.

One recent patient was a woman in her 50s. She turned up with her son, seeking treatment for her addiction to pachinko. The woman got divorced 30 years ago and about 10 years later she picked up pachinko as a pastime. Thirteen years ago her mother died, and she began to visit pachinko parlors more frequently and to spend more and more money.

When her debts topped ¥3 million, she filed for personal bankruptcy and attempted suicide. She was subsequently diagnosed with a severe gambling disorder.

Pathological gambling is a mental disorder which makes patients give in to such impulses even at the expense of what they have valued, such as families and jobs. Pathological gamblers often “have trouble deep in the mind such as a sense of shame, loneliness or helplessness, and feel no satisfaction whatever they do,” Komoto said. “My duty is to find the factors behind severe gambling disorders and develop treatment based on them.”

Traditionally, therapists have tried to free patients of the habit entirely. But the Kurihama center tries to nail down the cravings behind pathological gambling and find out how to satisfy them.

In the case of the aforementioned woman, doctors at the center determined her impulsive gambling was prompted by a sense of guilt over her mother’s death. The sentiment was eased by counseling and she received cognitive behavioral and other therapies. She now enjoys karaoke singing and even moderate pachinko gaming — with greater self-control.

“I cannot tell whether the opening of casinos would get more people addicted,” Komoto said. “In any case, it’s imperative to establish environments to offer them proper advice and treatment.”

Despite the number of people disposed to a severe gambling disorder, Komoto said the nation has only 10 medical institutions with outpatient wards specializing in its treatment.