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Soccer lottery: A tax to fund bureaucrats’ whims


The worst thing about the new soccer lottery system may be its name. “Toto” is taken from the Italian word totocalcio, which is the name of a similar lottery that has been in place in Italy for more than 50 years.

As Marty Kuehnert pointed out in his Japan Times column last Sunday, the word is already used in Japan to describe illegal gambling. But even the shortened version carries semantic baggage. In Japan, “Toto” is either the name of an over-the-hill L.A. pop band or the word you are most likely to encounter when you use the toilet.

However, the name is not what some parties objected to during the last seven years as the proposed lottery was debated in the government and the media. Gambling in any form is a slippery slope, and when it’s controlled and carried out by public bodies there is the central issue of how to promote it without seeming hypocritical.

The answer would seem to be to not promote it at all. Since lottery revenues are used to supplement public budgets, the purposes are seen as acceptable, but it’s still not something you encourage through advertising.

In Japan, the national lottery system, known as takara-kuji, is advertised extensively, as if it were a commercial product or service. In fact, the celebrity Joji Tokoro — whose name even sounds like takara-kuji — is the main face of the lottery system, even when he’s presented in computer-animated form.

In commercials and print ads for the Numbers lottery game (another unfortunate name, since in the U.S. “numbers” is used to describe illegal, mob-run lotteries), Tokoro guffaws just as broadly as he does when he’s shilling for stamina drinks or automobiles. The impression is that the lottery is fun, a game that may or may not bring you big winnings, but certainly one that you will enjoy playing.

This classic approach to promotion strikes some people as practical, others as cynical, but in either case a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary.

In the same vein, racing ads, whether they’re for horses, boats, bicycles or motorcycles, are only about the thrill of the sport and not about the betting, which everyone knows is the main attraction.

If we accept the premise that lotteries and racing are, first and foremost, fun, then why don’t pachinko parlors advertise?

The main reason may be that revenues from takara-kuji and racing go back to public administration, while pachinko profits do not. Racing helps support local governments, while the national lottery provides funding for culture and education. When used this way, lotteries are an indirect tax, like those placed on alcohol and tobacco, which, it should be remembered, are called “sin taxes” in the U.S.

In Japan, where middlemen rule, lottery revenues go to a foundation rather than directly into the coffers of, say, schools or museums. The money is then disbursed for cultural and educational purposes, benefiting commercial interests as much as noncommercial ones.

Classical music promoters try to sell concerts of visiting musicians to local governments throughout Japan and advise those government bodies to apply to their local lottery foundation for funding to help pay for the concerts. Much of those funds, if approved, will go into the pocket of the promoter, which is usually a profit-making organization.

Without revenues from bad habits, many Japanese would not get the chance to engage in what is usually referred to as “cultural and educational exchange.”

It’s impossible to bring a foreign opera company to these shores without corporate sponsorship, which is why you see the Philip Morris logo attached to so many symphony and ballet tours. Ryoichi Sasagawa, the late tycoon who reportedly made his fortune as a war merchant in Manchuria and later set up the boat racing industry, founded one of Japan’s largest private cultural foundations. The best concert hall in Tokyo — some say the world — was built by the country’s No.1 liquor manufacturer.

The irony is that most of the people who exercise the bad habits that produce the cultural revenues are not the kind of individuals who are going to benefit from them.

Research has shown that people who smoke, gamble and drink excessively are, on the average, poorer and less educated than those who don’t. They are less likely to go to a museum or attend a classical music concert.

These people are more likely to watch sports, but not necessarily soccer. The main obstacle to approving Toto was the fear that it would have a bad influence on children, since soccer players and soccer fans comprise a much younger demographic than, say, those of baseball.

That’s why people under 19 are not allowed to play Toto, even though there is no equivalent prohibition against buying takara-kuji tickets.

According to the Japan Sports Promotion Lottery Web site, half the Toto revenues will be paid back to winners, 15 percent will pay for administrative costs, and the remaining 35 percent will go to “create an environment in which everyone can enjoy sports.”

It isn’t a good sign that the two most prominent words in the small print are the bureaucratic faves seibi, which means “preparation” but usually stands for construction projects, and seisaku, which literally means “countermeasures,” mostly of a political nature.

In other words, Toto revenues may simply end up in the hands of federal and local agencies, which will use them as they see fit for “sports promotion.” In concrete terms, the money will probably go to pay for white elephants like the new Chofu Stadium, whose maintenance costs alone have reportedly enraged Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. The fears of Toto’s detractors turn out to be misdirected. It’s middle-aged bureaucrats, not kids, who will be corrupted.