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The fate of Yokohama’s controversial quest for a casino resort is likely to be decided on Aug. 22, when voters elect a new mayor.

But the crowded race, which kicked off Sunday, is also expected to impact the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, as both prepare for a looming LDP presidential election and general election due sometime this autumn.

The main issue of the Yokohama election is whether to elect a mayor who approves or opposes plans for the casino project at the city’s Yamashita Pier. Six of the eight candidates — including former National Public Safety Commission chair Hachiro Okonogi, 56, a close ally of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga — are running against the project.

Okonogi’s entrance into the race and his opposition to the project both came as a surprise to his political allies, especially Suga. The LDP and Komeito have officially declared that they are not backing any candidate and that their supporters should vote however they wish.

Hachiro Okonogi (right), a close aide of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, is one of the candidates opposing the casino project in the election for Yokohama mayor. | KYODO
Hachiro Okonogi (right), a close aide of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, is one of the candidates opposing the casino project in the election for Yokohama mayor. | KYODO

Incumbent Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, despite the lack of an endorsement from the ruling parties, is seeking re-election by supporting the casino project, which is also backed by the city’s assembly. In January, the LDP- and Komeito-led assembly turned down a referendum proposal on the casino issue, even though 190,000 signatures in support of it had been obtained.

“I have continued to maintain my political stance, and I want to realize (a casino resort),” Hayashi, 75, told supporters on Aug. 1.

But the incumbent has found herself up against some tough opposition — not only from Okonogi and the five other candidates opposed to the project, but also from influential local business figures, including the so-called Don of Yokohama, 90-year old Yukio Fujiki.

Fujiki, former chairman of the Yokohama Harbor Transportation Association and a key behind-the-scenes player in Yokohama politics, has been an important backer of both Suga, who started out as a Yokohama city assembly member, and Okonogi, who currently represents a district in the city.

Now serving as chair of the recently established Yokohama Harbor Resort Association, Fujiki has made its mission the redevelopment of the Yamashita Pier area without a casino, especially one backed by foreign investors.

“I will not allow a casino to be built in the port facility, regardless of who wins the upcoming mayoral election. Some other, more remote location within Yokohama would be fine. But if it’s decided that a casino is to be built in the port of Yokohama, I’ll commit ritual suicide on the day it opens,” Fujiki told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last Tuesday.

Okonogi, who supported the central government’s efforts to enact a casino law, said that if elected, he’ll cancel the Yamashita Pier project. He has not indicated whether he might support an alternate location along the lines Fujiki suggested.

Former Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa, who is opposed to the casino resort project, is one of eight candidates running for Yokohama mayor. | KYODO
Former Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa, who is opposed to the casino resort project, is one of eight candidates running for Yokohama mayor. | KYODO

Suga has chosen to back Okonogi, whose late father, Hikosaburo, was a Lower House member from Yokohama. A young Suga once worked for Hikosaburo, who served as his political mentor.

A loss by a longtime ally like Okonogi in Suga’s home of Yokohama could create further problems for the prime minister as he seeks re-election as LDP president in late September. Okonogi, however, was expected to receive the support of many local LDP and Komeito members, according to local polls, though a few were expected to cast their ballots for Hayashi.

The main opposition party candidate is Takeharu Yamanaka, 48, who has the backing of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and is also expected to draw lots of support from the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. Five other candidates, including former Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa, 63, and former Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka, 65, are running without party support against the casino project.

Only one other candidate, former LDP Diet member Mineyuki Fukuda, 57, who is running as an independent, has joined Hayashi in support of the casino project.

Meanwhile, Yokohama is continuing to promote the nongambling aspects of the so-called integrated resorts. A 2½ minute promotional video released last week on the city’s website emphasizes the shopping, dining, business meeting and event facilities that will be constructed alongside the casino. The aim is to open a resort later this decade.

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