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A bill to lift the ban on casinos is on the Diet table. Although its enactment during the current session seems iffy as time runs short before the scheduled close at the end of November, proponents say the legislation is needed now so that Japan can open casinos in time for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. But while advocates tout the economic benefits of boosting inbound tourism and creating jobs, no serious thoughts appear to be given to concerns that casinos will fuel the gambling addiction in this country and present underworld elements with a tempting opportunity to enrich themselves.

Gambling for money is prohibited under the nation’s criminal code. Still, there are horse, motorcycle, bicycle and boat races run by local governments and special entities that allow betting as exceptions meant to support public finances. Pachinko parlors, which are technically not labeled as gambling businesses but effectively allow people to cash in on their winnings, is a ¥19 trillion industry with roughly 12,000 outlets nationwide. A recent survey by a research team at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry estimated the number of people suspected of being addicted to gambling at 5.4 million. Criticism abounds that the government is doing little to address the problem.

A supra-partisan group of lawmakers who push for legalizing casinos — which submitted the bill to the Diet in December last year — recently went back and forth on whether to make casinos off limits to Japanese citizens. Apparently mindful of the criticism over possible negative social impact of casinos, members of the group earlier this month said they would revise the bill to initially limit the use of such facilities to visitors from abroad. But a few days later, they reversed the plan and said the casinos should be open to Japanese under certain conditions, such as banning the entry of heavily indebted persons or collecting entry fees from Japanese only.

The lawmakers said they changed the plan because the Legislative Bureau of the Lower House opined that banning the entry of Japanese runs counter to equality under the law. Some members of the group also reportedly charged that operation of casinos will not make business sense if domestic customers are excluded. Such a flip-flop in itself seems to illustrate the shaky ground on which the advocates of the bill stand.

The calls for legalizing casinos, which have come and gone since the late 1990s, gained fresh momentum after Tokyo won the bid last year to host the 2020 Olympic Games. The proponents hope casinos will help bring more tourists to Japan, which hosted more than 10 million visitors abroad for the first time last year but still lags behind many other Asian economies in terms of inbound tourism. They cite the example of Singapore, which succeeded in boosting the number of foreign visitors by 60 percent after it opened two casinos in 2010.

Abe, who toured one of the casinos in Singapore in May, calls the opening of casinos a key component of his economic growth strategy. Proponents estimate the economic benefits to reach trillions of yen, with hopes for increased investments and creation of jobs in related industries. Local governments in Osaka, Nagasaki, Okinawa and Hokkaido are lobbying to build casinos to their prefectures. The bill calls on the government to take steps to promote integrated resorts that combine casinos, hotels, shopping malls and convention centers. If it is enacted, the government will then prepare another legislation that sets detailed rules and regulations on the operation of casinos. The proponents say Japan should start with a few casinos and then expand the number later on.

It appears as if casinos are being touted as a magic wand to boost the nation’s economy. But the proponents should think why gambling for money is prohibited in Japan— albeit with the various loopholes that exist — and see if betting on casinos will truly bring sustained economic benefits. Gambling addictions can bring such forms of social ills as heavy individual debt and job losses. There are reports that some casinos overseas are being used as a vehicle of money laundering by anti-social forces. Before the government jumps on the casino bandwagon, careful consideration needs to be given to these and other concerns rather than to only the purported positive aspects of legalizing casino gambling.

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