Japan’s parliament has cleared the way for casinos to operate as part of ‘integrated resorts’. Photograph: Yuya Shino/Reuters Casino money.
Global casino operators are vying to move into Japan’s potentially lucrative market after a ban was lifted by lawmakers in Tokyo, despite warnings over gambling addiction and the involvement of organised crime.
Japan’s parliament approved legislation in the early hours of Thursday allowing the construction of “integrated resorts” that will include casinos alongside hotels and entertainment facilities.
Despite withdrawing from Macao and moving to concentrate on his casino interests in Australia, James Packer’s Crown Resorts is reportedly one of several casino operators that see huge potential in establishing a presence in Japan, regarded as the industry’s “final frontier”.
Packer’s company, Crown Resorts, could find the prospect of operating in the world’s third-biggest economy more attractive following a crackdown on gambling in China and the arrests there of 18 Crown employees there for alleged “gambling crimes”.
But first Crown, which is 48% owned by Packer, and other foreign operators would have to convince Japanese authorities they are able to promote responsible gaming and integrate their casinos with the resorts’ hospitality business.
“Japanese authorities will be telling foreign operators what they need to do,” an industry source told the Guardian. “That means that to have a presence in Japan, they will have to play by Japanese rules.”
Melbourne-based Crown said on Thursday it had ditched a proposed spinoff of its international assets. It also agreed to sell half its stake in the joint-venture Melco Crown Entertainment for $1.6bn and use the proceeds to reduce debt, fund a special distribution and enable a share buyback.
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Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has long pushed for a lifting of the casino ban, arguing it will boost the economy with the arrival of wealthy tourists from mainland China – where gambling is banned – and other parts of Asia.
MPs passed the bill despite warnings from opposition politicians and mental health experts that casino construction could lead to a rise in gambling addiction and prove fertile ground for money laundering by the yakuza, Japan’s organised crime syndicates.
Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka are among the cities jostling to be chosen as casino venues, while foreign operators have spent years lobbying Japanese authorities for access to a market that could generate huge profits.
Just three casinos could generate nearly US$10bn in net profit annually – equivalent to 0.2% of Japan’s GDP – according to the Daiwa Research Institute. The investment bank CLSA recently estimated the Japanese market could bring in gross revenues of US$30bn a year.
Billionaire casino operators such as Sheldon Adelson, head of Las Vegas Sands, and Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts have visited or sent representatives to Japan to lobby for legalisation.
Crown is understood to have been in contact with Japanese local authorities in a bid to become part of the country’s first integrated resort consortiums. Crown’s Hong Kong-based chairman, Robert Rankin, has also shown a keen interest in Japanese moves to legalise casinos after more than a decade of public debate.
The first casinos will not be ready in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, however, as new legislation will be needed to decide the number and location of casino resorts, admission regulations and rates of taxation on gambling profits. They are expected to open in around 2022 at the earliest.
Despite its ban on casinos, Japan is a nation of keen gamblers: horse, speedboat and keirin bicycle racing together bring in the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars a year. Pachinko, a pinball-like game, occupies a legal grey area and has been in decline in recent years but still produced more than US$200bn in revenue last year, according to the Japan Productivity Centre.
“The reason why everyone’s spending the time on this is that the potential is absolutely enormous,” said James Murren, chairman of Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International. Japan, he added, “would dwarf the Singapore market in size and could be extraordinarily lucrative for all the investors, real estate and operators alike”.
Abe has dismissed concerns that casinos would become magnets for antisocial behaviour, insisting they would form only a small part of resorts that would also include conference facilities, shops, restaurants and entertainment venues.
“It’s not like entire cities will be taken over by casinos,” he said. “These facilities will attract investment and do a lot to help create jobs.”
Abe noted that foreign tourist numbers had more than doubled from 8 million in 2012 to 20 million in 2016. “These integrated resorts will be able to be enjoyed by families, not just for business activities or conferences,” he added.
Analysts said the move could make Japan the second-biggest gambling market in the world after Macau.
“Quite simply it represents the next and perhaps only other large opportunity to develop large-scale integrated resorts in Asia for a lot of these companies,” said Grant Govertsen, a Macau-based analyst at investment firm Union Gaming.
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“Some of these companies, their revenues and cash flow are so large today that it would take an opportunity like Japan to move the needle for them.”
The Japanese public remains firmly opposed to casino legalisation, however. A recent poll by public broadcaster NHK showed 44% of people did not want casinos, while just 12% supported them.
Some experts accused the government of overstating the potential benefits.
“The estimated economic impact is too optimistic, while the negative impact – including gambling addiction – has been understated,” said Yoichi Torihata, a professor of economics and gambling business expert at Shizuoka University.
A 2014 study by the health ministry found that nearly 5 million Japanese were addicted to gambling, compared with around 1% in many other countries. The high rate of addiction is largely blamed on pachinko, in which players get around gaming laws by exchanging prizes for cash off the premises.