A Lower House committee on Friday approved a contentious bill paving the way for Japan to legalize casinos for the first time despite persistent public criticism it will exacerbate gambling addictions and breed organized crime.
Friday’s action, backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and conservative opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai, is the latest in a litany of attempts by the ruling LDP to ram contentious bills through the extraordinary Diet session. Only a modicum of time was spent deliberating ahead of the vote. Debate kicked off on Wednesday.
Members of the opposition Democratic Party walked out of Friday’s vote in protest.
The bill, submitted by a cross-party group of lawmakers, establishes the government’s responsibility to develop so-called Integrated Resorts, which include casinos, to help boost tourism and invigorate regional economies.
The bill is expected to pass the Lower House next week before going to the Upper House. It remains unclear, however, whether the Upper House panel will rubber-stamp it because the committee is chaired by a member of DP.
If the bill becomes law, the government will be obliged to take legislative steps within a year to legalize casinos, which are banned by the anti-gambling and lottery law. At the same time, the government is also expected to compile a package of bills to deal with the specifics of IRs, such as how to run them, regulate them and better rein in gambling addiction.
Pro-casino legislators who have been unsuccessfully jostling to legalize casinos view the bill as instrumental to galvanizing the tourism industry. They view the extraordinary Diet session as a long-awaited chance to revive debate on the issue before it is overshadowed by more important bills, such as those on the Emperor’s potential abdication, if it gets carried over to the next Diet session in January.
During Friday’s session of the Lower House Cabinet Committee, LDP lawmakers argued that any casinos built in Japan should take advantage of its state-of-the-art robot technology and incorporate unique areas of Japanese culture, from kabuki to cuisine, to differentiate themselves from casinos overseas.
“Japanese traditions or cultures are a key to keeping our version of casinos internationally competitive,” Takeshi Iwaya of the LDP told the committee.
But at the same time, the LDP said Japan should emulate countries where casinos already exist, such as Singapore, when devising plans to stave off unwanted clients, such as yakuza and minors. To this end, the idea of expanding the use of the My Number identification cards was floated.
Despite LDP assurances, the prospect of casinos in Japan is dogged by controversy.
Most major newspapers ran editorials Friday blasting the bill and the perfunctory Diet debates on its details. Noting casinos inevitably lead to some gamblers losing money, the Yomiuri Shimbun said: “a growth strategy exploiting the misfortune of others is extremely unhealthy.”
While speaking to the Lower House panel, lawmaker Saori Ikeuchi, of the Japanese Communist Party, decried the hasty discussions and called the bill a “paragon of social evils.”
Legalization, she said, would aggravate gambling addiction, stoke organized crime, including money-laundering, and encourage juvenile delinquency.
A survey by the health ministry in 2014 showed that 8.8 percent of adult men and 1.8 percent of adult women in Japan were suspected of being addicted to gambling though games like pachinko. Media reports at the time cited researchers as saying these figures translate into 5.36 million potential addicts, or 4.8 percent of the entire adult population, versus 1.58 percent in the U.S. in 2002, 1.8 percent in Hong Kong in 2001, and 0.8 percent in South Korea in 2006.
The rough and hasty handling of the bill also illustrated anew the ruling LDP’s heavy-handedness, with signs of discord emerging in the usually monolithic alliance of the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition. Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner, has traditionally been wary of legalizing casinos.
On Friday, just a few hours before the bill’s passage, Komeito Secretary-General Yoshihisa Inoue said the party had failed to unify its stance as some members refused to toe the LDP line.
Such a divide is “extremely rare,” Inoue said, underlining the party’s staunch opposition to legalization.
Instead, it was the smaller opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai that supported the bill, echoing its earlier backing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and revisions to the pension system.
Friday’s development may fuel criticism that Nippon Ishin no Kai, which shares Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of amending the pacifist Constitution, is increasingly aligning itself with the political juggernaut that is the LDP.
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