National | the argument: casinos

Any economic benefits of casinos come at far too steep of a price

by Keiko Itokazu

Contributing Writer

The Argument is a new feature dedicated to promoting dialogue and deeper understanding of contentious issues by introducing various viewpoints.

Those who support bringing casinos to Japan boast of their economic benefits, but any perceived boon for the economy is far outweighed by their destructive consequences.

I oppose the Japanese government’s efforts to use casinos as a way to boost the economy, simply because casinos will worsen the gambling addiction problem in this country and ultimately destroy communities around the facilities.

I became a member of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly in 1992 and for more than two decades, I have been at the forefront of the fight against bringing casinos to the island.

Last year, while I was serving as a lawmaker in the House of Councilors, the Diet passed legislation approving so-called integrated resorts featuring casinos. Even though the ruling parties overrode the opposition, I know that some members of the ruling bloc were hesitant.

It’s true that the government has introduced measures to curb the risk of gambling addiction, which it describes as the world’s strictest regulations. They include a limit on visits to casinos to a maximum of three times a week and charging a ¥6,000 admission fee.

But those measures aren’t enough.

Not a single country has perfected a way to fight against and cure gambling addiction, so can Japan really afford to spend money promoting casinos on the one hand while allocating funds to fight addiction on the other? It’s a waste of taxpayer money and it is concerning that the central government is actively creating ways to victimize its own citizens by shouldering them with debt.

Japan already has horse racing, pachinko and boat racing and casinos will do nothing but aggravate the issue of gambling addiction.

According to a 2011 Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper article, a nonprofit group based in Okinawa that deals with pachinko addiction reported it had handled 5,512 cases since 2006. In many cases, an addict’s family members who were dragged into the mess sought advice from the nonprofit group. That’s surely going to become a theme if casinos are brought to Japan and more broken families are likely to be the result. Is this what the country wants?

The introduction of casinos could also reverse a recent positive trend, with the number of people contacting different groups in Okinawa regarding multiple debts declining by almost 70 percent between fiscal 2006 and 2013, according to a nonprofit organization in the prefecture.

Proponents say casinos will rejuvenate communities and give tax revenues a boost. That could be the case if casinos become popular in local communities, but that would also make local residents vulnerable to gambling addiction. What I’m particularly worried about is that senior citizens with retirement savings will be lured into casinos and pick up gambling.

Additionally, casinos could worsen public safety. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations released a statement in May 2014 opposing the pro-casino legislation, pointing out that organized crime groups could exploit casinos for money-laundering activities. Casinos could also become a scene for gang conflict, undermining the safety of workers and customers.

It’s also debatable whether ordinary citizens will reap the supposed economic benefits. Casino owners, presumably non-Japanese, could glean the money out of people to make a profit and it’s unlikely there will be a positive trickle-down effect for the regional economy.

Those who are enthusiastic about bringing in casinos say they will boost local tourism. In my opinion, after making dozens of trips to cities with casinos, like Macao, Singapore and locations in South Korea, casinos will tear apart communities.

On those trips I’ve interviewed people who used to work at casinos, doctors who treat gambling addiction and individuals who recruited casino operators to their towns.

What I heard was horrifying.

Take South Korea’s Kangwon Land, which I visited seven times, where casinos and a treatment center for people with gambling addiction are right next to each other. During my 2009 visit, a managing director told me that between 25 and 30 people visit the counseling center on average every day.

An official who played a role in bringing the casino to the area told me that, since the casino opened in 2000, between 2,000 and 3,000 people became impoverished after they lost their money gambling, with some taking their own lives. Crimes like robbery went up and, concerned about public safety, many families relocated to other cities.

Because of the casino, the official believed the town would prosper. Instead, the population halved in 10 years.

When I visited Macao in 2007, a woman who used to be a dealer at one of the casinos told me about the misery of working there. She almost lost her eyesight due to cigarette smoke, while her fellow dealers were in debt after losing bets at other casinos. Investment money from abroad toward casinos raised property values, jacking up rent and forcing many small businesses to close their doors.

The casinos did hire local residents, but as more people got hired there, local shopping streets became empty.

“Japan, don’t change,” the woman told me. “Macao? Rubbish.”

South Korea and Macao justify my concern: Building casinos may sound attractive at first, but as time goes by they leave an ugly legacy.

As a former tour guide in Okinawa, I know that the prefecture has a rich and distinctive tradition, history, environment, culture and cuisine.

Tourists are drawn to the prefecture because they want to see this and they love to visit Okinawa’s beautiful beaches.

So what’s the need for casinos, a business preying on the poor, for Okinawa? Suppose Okinawa had casinos and people lost their fortunes there. Many of them will no longer want to visit the prefecture again.

It is the same for Japan as a whole. The country has so much to offer already. Think about Kyoto and Nara. Many visit Japan to experience our nation’s beautiful culture, not for gambling.

Keiko Itokazu is a former House of Councilors member who spearheaded a move last year to oppose a casino bill.

The Argument: Japan is going all-in on casinos. Will the gamble pay off?

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