Backlash in Osaka as ‘Dream Island’ leads race to open Japan’s first casino | Japan

Jhe center of Japan’s quest to open its first casino is an artificial island in Osaka that, if the city government has its way, will end decades of wrangling over the country’s strained relationship with poker tables and slot machines. under.

On a recent weekday morning, there was no indication that Yumeshima – “Dream Island” – could, by the end of the decade, be the site of an unprecedented experiment with gambling in the third largest economy. of the world.

A stream of trucks disappears into an underwater tunnel taking them to the island, while boats laden with earth plow the strip of water that separates it from the mainland. From a distance, Yumeshima looks more like a sprawling construction site than the possible location of the Japanese response to Macau or Las Vegas.

Six years after the government legalized casino development, Osaka is vying with Wakayama and the central city of Nagoya to open Japan’s first “integrated resort” – a complex of hotels, conference rooms and entertainment facilities with a worth 1 billion yen (£6 billion), with a casino as its money-making centerpiece.

The western Japanese city is now seen as the favorite after the local assembly, where right-wing populist Osaka Ishin no Kai is the strongest party, recently approved a candidacy to be sent to the central government ahead of the April 28 deadline.

The proposed complex will be “an engine of sustainable economic growth for Osaka and the region,” Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui told assembly members.

He has an ally in the Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, who has said integrated resorts are ‘key to Japan’s efforts to become a top tourist nation’ when it finally reopens to locked-out foreign visitors. during the coronavirus pandemic.

But despite campaigning locally on a pro-casino platform, Matsui and his allies are facing a backlash from citizen groups concerned about the cost of developing Yumeshima, which was built on land reclaimed during the boom years of the 1970s, and the casino. potential to become a magnet for organized crime and gambling addiction.

Yumeshima in 2017. Today it looks even more like a sprawling construction site than the possible location of the Japanese response in Macau or Las Vegas. Photography: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

The city assembly has received more than 100 petitions demanding that the casino project be scrapped or at least put to a referendum, a move it has so far resisted.

Critics point to the city’s decision to charge taxpayers 79 billion yen at the request of would-be resort operators, MGM Resorts International and Japanese financial services group Orix, to cover the cost of protecting Yumeshima from the soil liquefaction.

Foreign casino operators have spent years lobbying Japanese authorities for access to a market that could generate huge profits, estimated by some analysts at $20 billion a year, if three casinos are built.

Despite the long ban on casinos, Japan is a nation of avid gamblers: horse, speedboat, motorbike and keirin bike races bring in the equivalent of billions of dollars a year, while pachinko, a game type pinball machine, generated 14.6 billion yen in sales in 2020, according to the Japan Productivity Center’s leisure white paper.

But there is a downside. A study carried out in 2017 by the Ministry of Health revealed that around 3.2 million people – around 3.6% of the adult population – are addicted to gambling, far more than the 1.2% in France, by example. The high addiction rate is widely blamed on pachinko, in which players circumvent strict gambling laws by exchanging prizes or chips for cash on the spot.

Teruo Sakurada, a professor at Hannan University in Osaka, believes the central government will reject Osaka’s application due to “irregularities” in its application.

“It’s a matter of money for the operator and the Japanese companies involved in building and running the resort,” said Sakurada, who leads a group campaigning to scrap the Yumeshima casino project. “Local businesses have lost a lot of their power and influence in recent years, and this is a way for them to reassert themselves and share in the profits.”

Media polls show that about 60% of Japanese oppose the building of casinos.

A bettor writes his picks on a form guide at Kawasaki keirin races
A bettor writes his picks on a form guide at keirin races in Kawasaki. Photography: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

In an attempt to address concerns that resorts will create a new generation of drug addicts, only three sites will receive licenses to operate. Japanese nationals will be required to pay an entrance fee of ¥6,000 and will be limited to 10 visits per month. In addition, each casino will occupy no more than 3% of the total area of ​​the complex.

“What I object to the most is that these casinos cater mainly to Japanese people,” said Sakurada, whose group has called for a local referendum on the Yumeshima project, confident that a majority of inhabitants of the city will reject him. “If the casino is built, they will have to pay for the land to be developed, and they will continue to pay in other ways, such as increased gambling addiction.”

Joji Kokuryo, managing director of Tokyo-based consultancy Bay City Ventures, acknowledged there was no guarantee the central government would approve casino applications, despite their potential economic benefits as “tourism gateways”.

“Integrated resorts will bring more opportunities to local economies simply by attracting more visitors, jobs and business opportunities, while bringing indirect and induced benefits to the economy,” Kokuryo said.

The cause of casinos was not helped last year when Tsukasa Akimoto, then vice minister in charge of tourism and casino promotion, was sentenced to four years in prison for accepting millions of yen in bribes- de-vin of a Chinese gambling operator who hoped to open a casino. business in Japan.

Osaka and its rivals will be keen to learn from the experience of Yokohama, whose pro-casino former mayor launched an integrated resort bid despite public opposition, only to be voted out in favor of a candidate who quickly abandoned the city’s casino ambitions.

“If Yokohama’s history has taught us anything, some form of local consent, whether through elections or referendums, seems like a necessary step to get integrated station development off to a good start.” , said Kokuryo.

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