National | KANSAI PERSPECTIVE

Is Yumeshima safe as a casino site? Some question Osaka’s pitch after flooding at Kansai airport

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Less than two months ago, Typhoon Jebi ripped through western Japan and slammed a tanker into the only bridge leading to Kansai International Airport, forcing it to shut down.

Although the airport, built on an artificial island, quickly recovered and repairs to bridge are progressing, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura now face questions about the vulnerability to storm flooding at another man-made island: Yumeshima, where there are plans to build a casino resort.

The central government could grant Osaka one of three initial licenses to operate an integrated resort by the end of the year, and the city and prefecture are offering Yumeshima in Osaka Bay as the site.

Local residents, along with casino opponents in the municipal and prefectural assemblies, are voicing concerns that Yumeshima, like the airport, may be vulnerable to flooding.

Officials, however, say there’s nothing to worry about.

“The island of Yumeshima is higher above sea level than Kansai airport, so there is no problem,” Matsui tweeted last month. “Yumeshima is nine meters above sea level, so there would be no flooding at all,” Yoshimura also said on Twitter around the same time.

But September’s flooding at Kansai airport also raises the possibility that Osaka will debate additional anti-flooding measures for Yumeshima, leading to the thorny question of whether the city and prefecture would expect the casino operator to help cover at least part of the additional costs for implementing those measures.

Despite the concerns, Osaka remains one of the top candidates nationwide for a casino license. The prefecture and city are finalizing plans to establish a committee of third-party experts, who will evaluate proposals from casino operators.

Three international casino firms have expressed strong interest in opening a casino resort in the city: Melco Resorts & Entertainment, MGM Resorts International and Las Vegas Sands. All three are expected to submit proposals if Osaka is officially chosen as a casino site.

The expert committee is expected to be made up of specialists in casino economics and finance, security, and gambling addiction, and will be evaluating each aspect of an operator’s integrated resort proposal. The committee will send its final recommendations to the city and prefecture.

In neighboring Wakayama Prefecture, which is also seeking an integrated casino resort, officials are stepping up efforts to attract local support ahead of next month’s gubernatorial election.

In September, the prefecture announced it was studying the possibility of high-speed ferries between Kansai airport and Wakayama Marina City, the proposed location for a casino in the city of Wakayama, roughly 40 kilometers away.

Earlier this month, seven local chambers of commerce called on the prefecture to include measures to lobby for a casino resort in its fiscal 2019 budget. Wakayama Gov. Yoshinobu Nisaka expressed hope that the prefecture would remain a strong contender for a casino license even though Osaka had a head start.

“Only three locations will be chosen, and Osaka’s business community is quite aggressive in their activities to invite a casino,” Nisaka warned the business leaders when they presented their request.

Nisaka is up for re-election on Nov. 25, and a casino resort is expected to be one of the top issues for voters.

But the governor remains at odds with Wakayama Mayor Masahiro Obana on the issue of Japanese visitors to a local casino.

Nisaka favors allowing Japanese into a casino, whereas Obana has said that he’d support a casino plan as long as it was only for foreign visitors.

Obana was re-elected in late July by a comfortable margin while Nisaka is heavily favored to win re-election next month.