National / Social Issues | the argument: casinos

Casinos are misunderstood and a needed part of destination resorts

by Takeshi Iwaya

Contributing Writer

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

As a longtime member of a nonpartisan group of lawmakers promoting integrated resorts, my basic stance is to promote the introduction of IRs as a whole, rather than casinos alone.

Japan needs the resorts because it’s a tool essential to the nation’s goal of establishing itself as a “tourism-oriented” country. Being a native of the city of Beppu, Oita Prefecture, which has long thrived as one of Japan’s most popular hot-spring sightseeing spots, I’ve been a longtime advocate for the power of tourism.

The casino law stipulates that envisioned integrated resorts be equipped with not just casinos but other facilities, including hotels, recreational areas and convention halls.

This is critical for Japan, as the nation is fast lagging behind its rivals overseas in luring international conferences and exhibitions, partly due to a lack of spacious venues that can host large-scale events.

Even Tokyo Big Sight, the biggest such facility in Japan, ranked an underwhelming 78th globally in terms of size as of March, according to the Japan Exhibition Association.

I’m positive that new convention centers to be built within integrated resorts will turn out bigger than existing facilities in Japan, which will go a long way toward helping the nation regain competitiveness in attracting global conferences.

Some might argue, then, that IRs shouldn’t include casinos and focus exclusively on those event-hosting roles.

But the unfortunate reality is that it will be very difficult for such venues to be commercially successful without casinos.

It is due to the potential profitability of casinos that I believe they are an indispensable part of integrated resorts — even if each casino is permitted to occupy less than 3 percent of the entire resort space under the law.

It’s still too early to say what economic benefits integrated resorts will generate, but I am personally hopeful they will eventually push up Japan’s GDP by 1 percent or more, not just by hosting a slew of international conferences but by increasing the number of tourists from abroad. Needless to say, I also believe they will greatly contribute to the Japanese government’s target of attracting an annual 60 million foreign tourists by 2030 while boosting their spending to ¥15 trillion.

Skeptics are of the opinion that Japan’s casino debut is less about invigorating local economies than it is about opening up the nation’s potentially lucrative market to foreign casino giants such as Las Vegas Sands. But 30 percent of gaming revenue by these operators will be contributed to national and municipal coffers in Japan so they can be used to stimulate regional economies.

Having inspected casino resorts overseas before, I can’t help but feel that some Japanese have a certain misconception about them, automatically conjuring up the image of shady gambling parlors, an impression that they might have picked up while watching classic mafia movies.

But the impression I’ve derived from my own trips to casinos across the world is different. When I visited one in Singapore in August, for example, I found it to be something of a comprehensive entertainment facility with families as its main clientele. Similar changes are taking place at casinos in Las Vegas and Macao, too, which are increasingly transforming into holiday destinations for families.

I hope that whatever casino resorts Japan will create will take a page from those examples overseas and present themselves, first and foremost, as family-friendly destinations.

At the same time, they should seek to differentiate themselves by bringing Japan’s unique strengths to the fore, including its state-of-the-art technologies, traditional arts and sophisticated barrier-free measures. I would love to bring my own family to a resort like that, where we can do everything from shopping and dining to enjoying live performances.

But driven by their own prejudice, opponents of integrated resorts in Japan often insist that casinos could deepen gambling addiction or become a breeding ground for money laundering by organized crime syndicates.

To allay their concerns, we, in emulation of Singapore, will put in place some of the world’s strictest measures against addiction. Domestic guests will be charged with an admission fee of ¥6,000 upon each visit, and visits to casinos will be limited to three times a week and 10 per month.

On top of these regulatory steps, the Diet passed a bill that comprehensively addresses the issue of gambling addiction, allowing the government to come up with anti-addiction policies that cover not only casinos but other existing forms of gambling, such as horse racing and pachinko gaming. It goes without saying that the government is expected to boost efforts to raise awareness of gambling addiction.

With these measures in place, I’m confident Japan can reduce the number of people struggling with compulsive gambling problems, just as Singapore did in the past. A National Council on Problem Gambling study shows, for example, that Singapore’s rates of “probable pathological” and “probable problematic” gambling have decreased since enacting casino legalization, from 4.1 percent in 2005 to 0.9 percent in 2017.

It’s fair to say we humans are drawn to gambling because we have an inherent desire to try our luck. Be it horse racing, boat racing or the lottery, we all get a kick out of testing how lucky we are. It’s been a form of entertainment since time immemorial.

Granted, casinos can be dangerous and it cannot be denied that they could do you great harm if you revel in them with no exercise of self-control.

But the important thing is how we use our wisdom to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits — that’s the kind of society we should aim for.

Seeking an outright ban on casinos and other types of gambling just because they have some downsides sounds rather unwholesome, and almost tantamount to overly regulating people’s lives.

Takeshi Iwaya, a Liberal Democratic Party member of the Lower House, is the secretary-general of a bipartisan lawmakers group on integrated resorts.

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