The year was 1948: Japan was still recovering from the ravages of war. Bombed-out bridges needed rebuilding, cratered roads needed repaving and railroads had to be relaid. It would cost a fortune, but who would foot the bill?

Corporate and income taxes alone could not cover the cost. But the mandarins believed that citizens were able to contribute more than they let on. So they devised a way to tease that money out -- by introducing state-supervised gambling on horse and bicycle races.

National and local governments would collect gambling profits and channel them into reconstruction. Never mind that the country's Confucian value system discouraged gambling; this was no time for moralizing. The measure became law before the end of the year, and soon afterward betting on speedboat races also got the green light.