Macau could have some serious competition for the gaming capital of Asia in the next few years: Japan is planning to legalise gambling in the spring of 2018, an opportunity which the biggest players in the industry are extremely excited about.
Las Vegas Sands and MGM have claimed they are willing to invest up to $10 billion in new casino resorts in Japan, whilst Macau casino magnate Lawence Ho has stated that ‘nothing will hold him back’ in his pursuit of conquering the Japanese market. Only two licenses are expected to be issued initially, and American companies are eagerly lobbying for the opportunity to be one of the first casinos in Japan. Early predictions for Japan’s casino market estimate a value of $40 billion, above even Macau’s current revenue.
Although it is the opening of casinos that is the main focus, the new laws do stipulate that any new casinos would have to be part of full resorts. This will have to include a hotel, conference centre, and entertainment venues: in fact, Las Vegas Sands has already recruited top celebrities such as David Beckham and Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh to drum up public interest in new, huge, top-of-the-range sports and music venues. It is believed that Yokohama – which is near Tokyo- and Osaka, the two largest cities outside of the capital, are the prime contenders for the new resorts.
The decision to legalise gambling would have huge financial and societal implications for Japan. Whilst it would give the country a whole new source of revenue, both from the games themselves and from increased tourism, many worry that it will aggravate the country’s already considerable problems with gambling addiction.
Indeed, even though most forms of gambling are prohibited in Japan, certain exceptions and loopholes exist. Betting on ‘public’ races is allowed, as are lotteries ran by prefectures or large cities. However, the biggest example of gambling culture in Japan is pachinko, a pinball-style arcade game which is played in massive parlours across the country. Pachinko is legal because the prizes are not cash-based, the loophole being that the prizes can be sold at neighbouring shops for cash.
There is also a strong association in Japanese culture between gambling and organised crime, with the infamous Yakuza being known to run illegal casinos. They were also famously involved in Pachinko for several decades, and although their influence has been mostly eradicated due to police efforts, the connection between crime and gambling remains in the public consciousness.
In a country where up to 5% of the population is thought to be addicted to gambling, and where most forms of gambling aren’t even legal, the idea of bringing in mega-casinos in the style of Vegas, Macau or Singapore makes many uneasy. Recent political events in Japan may allow these opponents to stop the new laws from happening: last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a snap election, meant to reinforce his party’s position. This election would dissolve the current legislature and make it harder for the gambling laws to be passed, giving opponents a chance to intervene.