Tackle the entire scope of gambling addiction

Legislation is being prepared by the government and the ruling coalition parties to set the rules for operating casinos. This is a follow-up to the law enacted in 2016 legalizing casinos in this country, where gambling is legally prohibited in principle but gambling addiction is deemed a serious social problem. The development of integrated resort facilities featuring casinos has been promoted as a means to attract more inbound tourists to Japan, and to generate jobs and other economic benefits for host areas. But a key point of discussion over the pending legislation has been how to restrict the entry of resident customers to casinos to prevent them from exacerbating their gambling addiction.

A plan proposed last month by the government to the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito says that Japanese and non-Japanese residents will not be allowed to enter a casino more than three times over a seven-day period — or more than 10 times a month. They will be required to present their My Number personal identification cards for the purpose of entry records, and will be charged a ¥2,000 entry fee. Tourists from overseas will not be subject to the regulation or required to pay an entry fee.

It is debatable whether restricting the frequency of visits to casinos or imposing an entry fee will serve as adequate deterrence against gambling addiction. But the proposals hardly sound prohibitive. They will allow people to spend time in casinos nearly half the week — or a third of the month. The entry fee was reportedly set at ¥2,000 after an online survey by the government showed that people’s willingness to visit casinos starts to decline if such a fee is set at ¥3,000 or higher. The proposed rules thus appear to be token regulations that will not deter Japanese customers from using the casinos.

Gambling is prohibited under the Penal Code — except in forms that are permitted by separate laws, including horse racing, motorboat racing, motorcycle racing and bicycle racing. The pachinko industry, with its ¥20 trillion-plus market, is legally considered to be a gaming business, not gambling, because of the unique system in which customers exchange their token “prize” for their wins with cash outside the pachinko parlors.

According to a government survey last year, an estimated 3.2 million people are suspected to have been addicted to gambling at some point in their lives — including some 700,000 who are believed to have been addicted in the past year. Most of these people are believed to have spent the bulk of their gambling money playing pachinko. Although a simple comparison is difficult, the ratio of suspected gambling addicts to the population was higher than in other countries whose data was cited in the survey. Behind this result, officials suspect, are the ample gambling opportunities in everyday life in this country, notably the ubiquitous pachinko parlors. Addiction to gambling is believed to be fueling other social problems, including crippling debt incurred by playing pachinko and people who turn to crime after being pushed into poverty by gambling.

Meanwhile, the government and the LDP have been pushing for the introduction of casinos — which now operate in more than 120 countries and regions around the world — as a key feature of integrated resorts that will combine hotels, international convention centers, shopping malls and other entertainment facilities. The government views the development of integrated resorts as a key element of Japan’s competition with other Asian economies to attract more wealthy tourists and generate new industries. The integrated resort business is deemed vital to its ambitious goal of increasing the annual number of inbound tourists to 60 million and their consumption to ¥15 trillion by 2030.

Counting on the economic benefits that integrated resort facilities are expected to bring, several prefectures and municipalities across Japan, including Osaka, Wakayama, Nagasaki and Hokkaido, have bid to host them. Once the prepared legislation setting the rules of casino operation is enacted, the government is expected to choose candidate sites from among projects jointly proposed by local host governments and private integrated resort operators — likely in the 2020s.

But efforts to deal with gambling addiction — on which the push for casinos sheds new light — lag behind. Legislation prepared by the ruling coalition — after the enactment of the 2016 law — to require national and local governments to compile concrete measures to tackle gambling addiction, including medical and counseling services, was submitted to the Diet last year but has not made much progress. Along with measures to ensure that casinos will not create more gambling addicts, such efforts must tackle the much larger problem of addiction to existing forms of gambling, including pachinko and publicly run betting events.