| TOKYO/HONG KONG, April 23
TOKYO/HONG KONG, April 23 After Singapore,
A pro-casino group of Japanese lawmakers has tapped an
influential member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)
as its leader and plans to submit legislation this year aimed at
opening the world's third-largest economy to casino gambling.
Although casinos are illegal, Japanese are already active
gamblers, and a pinball-like game called pachinko generates some
$200 billion in revenue each year - about the same as Toyota
Motor Corp. Japan is often touted as the next major
casino market after Chinese enclave Macau, the world's biggest
gambling hub, which raked in revenue of $38 billion last year.
A large and wealthy population coupled with a proximity to
Shanghai and Beijing has the potential to transform Japan into a
lucrative gaming centre, providing tax revenues to shore up the
state's ailing finances, analysts say. Broker CLSA estimates
Japan's gaming market could be worth at least $10 billion if two
large-scale integrated resorts are approved - more than
Singapore's $5.9 billion and Las Vegas' $6.2 billion in 2012.
The cross-party casino group aims to submit a promotional
bill to parliament in the autumn, which could be followed by
concrete laws within two years, Takeshi Iwaya, the deputy head
of the lobby of more than 100 lawmakers, told Reuters.
Submitting a bill would mark progress for a pro-casino camp
that has struggled to gain traction for more than a decade even
as other Asian countries develop multi-billion dollar resorts to
attract tourists and investment. A major roadblock in Japan has
been the near constant change in political leadership.
But hopes have been raised by the return to power in
December elections of the business-friendly LDP under popular
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has indicated he is open to the
idea of casino resorts.
The group will introduce Hiroyuki Hosoda, a veteran LDP
lawmaker and former chief cabinet secretary, as its new chairman
at a meeting on Wednesday. Hosoda will have the ear of the
administration, an important piece of the puzzle that has been
lacking in recent years, Iwaya said.
"You need both sides of the equation before things really
get moving. We want to make that happen this year," said Iwaya,
whose group is proposing an integrated resorts model that
incorporates tourism, conventions and entertainment, as well as
casino gambling - an approach based in part on the strategy
adopted by Singapore when it opened its first casino in 2010.
Yet many analysts remain sceptical there is enough political
support. An attempt to introduce a casino bill last year to help
fund rebuilding of the earthquake-hit northeast fizzled in the
face of the December poll.
One potential complicating factor is the Japan Restoration
Party, formed last year by popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto,
which has said it may introduce a bill on its own even though
its lawmakers are members of the cross-party group.
"One of the projects that would definitely bring investment
into the country and create jobs is casino gaming. The issue is
whether they can finally get their act together to make it
happen," said Paul Bromberg, gaming industry expert and CEO of
consultancy Spectrum OSO Asia.
One of the group's most pressing tasks is to get Abe, who is
enjoying high support ratings due to aggressive economic
policies aimed at defeating deflation, to include casinos in a
growth strategy to be announced in June. In a March parliament
session, Abe said he could see the economic benefits of
introducing casinos - a statement proponents interpreted as
support for the movement - but he also mentioned the need to
study the potential social costs.
Casino legislation could be submitted around September after
an upper house election expected in July.
At the very least, a bill would face resistance from the
Communist and Social Democratic parties, both of which worry
about crime and other harmful side effects on society,
representatives from the small opposition parties said.
Communist Party lawmaker Mikishi Daimon said there was not a
clear consensus on the merits of introducing casinos, including
within the LDP.
Given the expected economic boost, legislation would likely
receive broad support among Japan's business community, while
casino operators including Las Vegas Sands and Genting
Group have also shown keen interest in
opening a casino in Japan.
Among potential beneficiaries highlighted by Mizuho
Securities in a March report are pachinko machine maker Sega
Sammy Holdings and Fuji Media Holdings, a
broadcaster headquartered in the Odaiba area of Tokyo seen as a
prime spot for a casino should legislation pass.