Britain is not alone in seeing the potential economic benefits of enticing foreign tourists to part with their money at the roulette wheel.
In Japan, MPs are about to attempt an overhaul of the country’s strict gambling laws that would pave the way for the construction of a Japanese version of the super-casino.
The pro-casino lobby says Japan is losing out to other Asian countries, such as South Korea and China, in the race to secure extra tourist dollars. Singapore has recently lifted its ban on casinos and Thailand is expected to follow suit to challenge Macao’s reputation as the Las Vegas of the east.
„The idea isn’t just to build casinos but to develop huge entertainment complexes that include shops, restaurants and theatres to give tourists and business people something to do, apart from seeing all of the usual historical and cultural sites of course,“ says Takayuki Aoki, chief political aide to Takashi Iwai, a Liberal Democratic party MP who heads the party’s subcommittee on casino entertainment.
The group had hoped to table a bill to legalise casinos during the current parliamentary session but last-minute changes and a packed legislative schedule mean they will probably have to wait until next year, Mr Aoki told the Guardian.
He has promised a softly-softly approach, amid fears that casinos will prove irresistible to teenagers and gangsters. „We haven’t decided how many casinos would be built but it would be very few at first,“ Mr Aoki said. „We would then give them a trial period to see what problems, if any, arise.“
If the bill is passed next year it could take five years to train enough croupiers and other staff to deal with the influx of foreign tourists that the gambling lobby predicts would flood through the doors of the first casino.
To pro-gambling MPs, the government’s erstwhile opposition to casinos reeks of hypocrisy. Japanese who enjoy a flutter can already bet on several sports, such as horse racing and cycling, and play the national lottery – bringing state coffers an estimated 7 trillion yen (GBP 33bn) a year in tax revenue.
That figure does not include pachinko, the pinball-like game which is played regularly by 18 million Japanese. Although officially deemed a form of adult entertainment rather than gambling, pachinko – in which prizes are exchanged off-premises for cash – generates JPY 30 trillion a year, which is more than Japan’s top five carmakers put together.
„Japan is already a gambler’s paradise,“ says Masayoshi Oiwane, principal of the Japan Casino School in Tokyo, whose graduates must find work overseas, on cruise ships or at „casino parties“ in which players are banned from using cash.
„There is no evidence at all that opening casinos would lead to crime and social problems,“ Mr Oiwane said. „People who say that should go to a casino and see for themselves.“
But critics say that, economic benefits aside, the plans could be disastrous for habitual gamblers and their families. „Japan already has a huge gambling problem and opening casinos would make it easier for at-risk people to get swallowed up by their addiction,“ says Itta Hoshijima, a social worker in Tokyo.
„There are about 1.5 million gambling addicts in Japan but almost nowhere for them to go for help. If the government insists on investing in casinos, I hope it also spends more on preventing gambling addiction.“ Recently a couple were arrested when their two-month-old son died of heatstroke and dehydration after being locked inside a car for five hours while they played pachinko.
Mr Oiwane, however, played down fears that casinos would provide rich pickings for the yakuza, Japan’s mafia. „The law means that the only casinos in Japan are illegal, and yes, most of them are run by the yakuza,“ he said. „But if the government legalises them, the underground scene will disappear and yakuza will lose their influence.“
Meanwhile, more than 25 local government leaders have thrown their support behind lifting the ban. The governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who believes that casinos would make Tokyo „better for everyone“, reckons a casino complex in Tokyo would create about 10,000 new jobs and revitalise the Odaiba waterfront district, which is the preferred site for the capital’s first casino.
The entertainment behemoth envisioned by Mr Ishihara would include a 1,000-room hotel, restaurants and shops, creating projected revenue of ¥224bn a year. The casino alone would bring in more than ¥90bn a year, he said.
Mr Oiwane said attracting more tourists was only half of the appeal. „The aim isn’t just to attract more foreigners but to stop Japanese people from spending huge sums of money overseas in places like South Korea,“ he said. „Japan is the only country in Asia that bans casinos. It doesn’t make sense. Even North Korea has one.“