SENDAI – Business and political leaders in the northeast are betting on a casino as the brightest hope to speed reconstruction in a region battered by the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Supporters of the plan for a casino near Sendai are not publicizing their efforts yet, because they expect strong opposition from residents on the grounds that a casino would exploit victims of the disaster.
But they hope to campaign openly once lawmakers in Tokyo pass a measure to legalize casinos. Diet debate on the move, repeatedly delayed amid worries the measure could fuel crime and gambling addiction, may begin next month.
Two-thirds of the 59 assemblymen in Miyagi back the plan for a casino there.
“With a casino, we can increase the number of people coming and going,” said Takayoshi Konno, 74, an assemblyman who belongs to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
“There is so much we must do for reconstruction, and we’ll need more fiscal spending. We need to do all we can to secure revenue in different ways.”
He and colleagues backing the project hope to see an “integrated resort” built near Sendai Airport, the target of a privatization plan by Abe to cut bloated government debt.
Such a resort, offering a hotel, shops, convention and sports facilities in one package, could draw overseas visitors to Sendai, which is near ski and hot spring resorts. It would also help boost tax revenue and offset the region’s population decline by luring in workers, the casino backers say.
Miyagi, with a population of 2.3 million, is in dire need of more investment and jobs, Konno said. Reconstruction work has helped reduce unemployment from pre-disaster levels, but almost 75,000 people still live in temporary homes.
The Miyagi area was hit hardest by the 2011 disasters, with nearly 11,000 dead or missing, around double the toll in Iwate to the north.
Casino supporters hope a national law will impart legitimacy to their cause, boosting public support, but the specter of gambling addiction has led to delays in the Diet.
Some lawmakers who back casinos fear that scandals that recently forced two Cabinet ministers to resign could complicate matters, though one pro-casino political source expects debate to start in early November. A later date would make it tough for a casino to open before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Casino proponents in Miyagi are wary of starting a public campaign too early, particularly after a bid two years ago failed amid criticism it was too soon after the disasters. One casino consultant remembers being pelted with rocks at the time.
Such sentiment still lingers. Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai, now in his third term, recently told a meeting he did not support a bid for a casino.
Miyagi needs Murai’s approval to nominate itself as a casino site, and advocates hope he will change his mind once the law passes.
“I understand why the naysayers worry,” said construction firm owner Takeshi Nagakubo. “But it’s not like they have an alternative plan to improve the economy here. This is the best chance we’ve got.”
Supporters of casinos envisage them in several rural sites, besides a few large resorts in key cities.
While regions such as Osaka, Nagasaki and Hokkaido jostle to host casinos, public skepticism has made others wary.
Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe, battling mounting costs ahead of the Olympics, says casinos are not a priority, while a bid by Okinawa is seen hinging on who wins its November election for governor.
The Japan bar association is one of the strongest opponents, saying addiction leads to big debts and loan-sharking.
Koji Niisato, an attorney in Sendai who opposes casinos, said survivors craving diversion from their woes were particularly vulnerable.
“We’re talking about a business that is based on people’s misfortune,” he said. “Is it right to position something like that as a pillar of growth?”