Gambling has always been a part of 50-year-old Noriko Tanaka’s life.
Her grandfather spent most of his time at pachinko parlors.
Her father was obsessed with everything from horse racing and speedboat trials to “keirin” (cycling) contests, and got fired for embezzling to feed his addiction.
So when she married a man who turned out to be an avid fan of speedboat races, she was not surprised.
Tanaka began visiting racecourses to bet with her husband when she was 30.
It was a slippery slope. After losing ¥2 million in one night at a casino in Las Vegas, she returned to Japan and borrowed more money from consumer lenders, believing she could win it all back if she continued gambling.
After that, she became hooked on shopping, an activity she now feels could have been a desperate attempt to rise above what had been a miserable, poverty-stricken childhood.
It was only when she realized her husband was several million yen in debt that the couple decided to seek help.
“Until we sought (psychiatric) help, we just couldn’t stop gambling — even if we wanted to,” Tanaka said.
“Gambling addiction is a deep-rooted problem. . . . But people can recover if they can get the right support.”
In a country where pachinko parlors and publicly managed forms of gambling are ubiquitous, millions of people are believed to be addicts like Tanaka.
Japan, however, lags far behind other nations when it comes to support for compulsive gamblers and therapy to kick the habit, said Tanaka, who herself has not gambled for the past six years.
As pro-casino lawmakers prepare to legalize casinos to lift the nation’s economy, Tanaka, who now heads a support group for fellow addicts, urges policymakers to focus on the problem of gambling addiction and to put in place measures to rein it in.
“If Japan is to set up casinos, I want the government to establish a law to establish measures for gambling addiction,” Tanaka said at a symposium organized by her support group in Tokyo last week. Attending were six lawmakers who represented both sides of the debate on legalization.
“I understand that (casinos) could be an effective way to boost the economy,” she told the politicians. “But I just want you to think about the fact that there are not enough measures” to deal with addiction.
Pathological gambling is classified as an impulse control disorder by the World Health Organization. Those addicted cannot control the urge to play more and thus fall deeper into debt.
According to an estimate released in August based on research funded by the health ministry, about 5.36 million people, or nearly 5 percent of Japan’s adult population, are gambling addicts.
It is an alarming figure. The rate in most other countries is around 1 percent, the study said.
Yet Japan has not conducted a full-fledged study of the problem and lacks enough facilities to treat pathological gamblers, experts say. The ministry says there are about 80 hospitals and clinics that can handle the problem.
But each institution provides different kinds of care, a health ministry official said, noting that while some offer special programs to treat impulse gamblers, others merely introduce them to self-help groups.
Michiyo Yakushiji, an Upper House member from Your Party, said many doctors are unable to diagnose gambling addiction, stressing the need for more specialized hospitals to treat the problem.
One of the key elements of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic growth policy is to legalize casinos. Aiming to open the first so-called integrated resort by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a nonpartisan group of lawmakers hopes to pass a bill to legalize casinos by the end of the ongoing extraordinary Diet session, which is expected to carry on through Nov. 30.
However, members of Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and other smaller opposition parties, including Your Party, have raised concerns about the possible breakdown of public order that legalization may cause.
It is therefore uncertain whether the casino bill will clear the Diet.
Takeshi Iwaya, an LDP member of the Lower House who serves as secretary-general of a group promoting the casino bill, said pro-casino lawmakers are thinking of using part of the revenue raised from them to fund measures against addiction.
But he stopped short of saying how much of the revenue would go toward addiction treatment or whether the proposal itself represented a moral hazard.
“I can’t say how much, now, at this stage,” Iwaya said. “Tax revenue itself will be different depending on the tax rate, as well as the number and scale of integrated resorts” Japan will establish.
Sakihito Ozawa, a Lower House member from Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) who is also a member of the casino promotion group, said that integrated resorts are an effective way to increase tourism.
What the government must do is minimize the negative effects, such as addiction, and preserve the plan to legalize casinos, he said.
“It seems too short-sighted to deny the (integrated resort) bill” over addiction concerns, Ozawa said.
After hearing the lawmakers’ opinions, Tanaka asked them to beef up measures regardless of whether Japan actually legalizes casinos.
“We are not against the establishment of casinos,” Tanaka said.
“What we want is the establishment of measures to tackle gambling addiction — which exists already — as soon as possible.”