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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Japan's Controversial Casino Plan

Feb. 22, 2017

Japan's plan to build casinos is stirring controversy. Some say that doing so will revitalize local economies, while others worry it could lead to more crime and gambling addiction

Last December, a law was enacted that paves the way for the construction of "integrated resorts" -- complexes that feature hotels and conference halls as well as casinos. This means that for the first time, a casino may open in Japan.

At the same time, legislation is being considered to deal with gambling addiction and treatment. In Osaka, authorities and companies are already taking steps to prepare for these new resorts.

Near the coast in Osaka city, plans for a resort are underway. One site being considered for the construction of an integrated resort is Yumeshima, which was created on an area of landfill in Osaka Bay.

The land was to be used as part of an Olympic Village under Osaka's bid for the 2008 Games. When that bid failed, the question remained about how to use the space.

One idea was to attract integrated resorts, or IRs. The Osaka Prefectural Government set a goal of opening such facilities in 2023. Officials estimate that if three resorts were built, it would bring about 13 million new visitors to the area and add add more than 5 billion dollars a year to the economy.

Several foreign companies have openly expressed their intention to bid. One Singaporean IR developer is already working to hire casino dealers. More than 70 students and office workers applied for a job.

"I was a supervisor at a supermarket deli counter. I quit to come here," one applicant said.

A math test and an interview in English are part of the vetting process.

The company hired 26 people, who will first train at a casino in Singapore to get experience before heading back to Osaka, once the plan is realized.

The company is already operating Singapore's largest integrated resort, called Marina Bay Sands. It attracts 40 million visitors a year. On the rooftop, 200 meters above ground level, is a large, world-famous swimming pool.

The casino alone makes more than 2.5 billion dollars a year ― that’s about 80 percent of the income from the entire resort.

"It's a very attractive draw for international tourists, and so it's a big driver of our revenue and our profit," says George Tanasijevich, CEO of Marina Bay Sands.

In Osaka, Governor Ichiro Matsui is meeting with executives from various foreign IRs.

Tanasijevich is optimistic about Osaka's prospects.

"Well I think there is significant potential because as I say it has all of the attributes that we are looking for in a location," he says.

NHK World correspondent Ayuko Okano joins anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: So these integrated resorts are nothing new in other Asian countries. But Japan didn’t think about allowing such resorts until recently. Why are they only just being considered now?

Okano: In fact, Japan already has various forms of gambling, such as betting on horses and speedboats. These are officially sanctioned. However, when it comes to casinos, it's a very controversial topic. The opponents say that the amount of money spent in casinos would be much more than for horse or boat races.

Beppu: So how was such a controversial plan adopted in the Diet?

Okano: Of course, there were strong voices against the bill. However, lawmakers who back the idea stressed the impact casinos can have on local economies. The ruling parties extended the Diet session last autumn and winter in order to push through other bills. The supporters used this extension to pass their bill.

Beppu: Why is Osaka particularly keen to have casinos there?

Okano: Local governments and business organizations in Osaka are especially eager to promote this bill because they believe these resorts will boost the local economy by creating more jobs. They also hope that the resorts will bring in more tourists. Last year, Osaka attracted more than 9 million foreign visitors -- the highest figure on record. With the resorts, they believe that this number can increase more. And, I would say that there is one more reason: As you know, in Japan, most businesses and the population are concentrated in Tokyo. As a major rival to Tokyo, it's no wonder Osaka wanted something to boost its economic power.

Critics point out that more than 5 million people are thought to be addicted to gambling in Japan. The Osaka Prefectural Government organized a meeting to explain the details of a potential integrated resort to the public last month and the reaction was mixed.

"These are our voices, the voices of the people of Osaka. A lot of people don’t know the dangers. There will be addiction. I was addicted, so I know," said one participant at the event.

Takatoriki, a retired sumo wrestling star, draws on his own experiences to talk about risks posed by casinos.

"I was dismissed from the Sumo Association because of gambling," he tells an audience of young men at one event.

In 2010, it was discovered that Takatoriki was betting illegally on baseball games. He says he discovered the pleasures of casinos while on an international sumo tour and became hooked on gambling. He would visit foreign casinos more than 10 times a year, and says he lost nearly 5 million dollars. He tried to stop, but kept getting lured back to the betting tables.

He often speaks to groups of young people to warn them of the dangers of gambling.

"If they build a casino, I will surely go. How could I control myself?” one audience member asks him.

"I have the same concern. If I had cash right now, I’d spend it all, so I’m trying not to touch it," Takatoriki says.

After he retired from sumo, Takatoriki became a restaurant owner. He concentrates on work, but still worries he could fall back into gambling.

"It’s a disease, an illness," he says. "I’m told that I have no will power, among other things."

With the prospect of more IRs making their way to Osaka, a local hospital is improving its addiction treatment programs. But there’s a limit to what medical care can do.

"It’s a problem the medical community can't easily fix. Each person facing addiction needs a strong social network, built bit by bit. It may seem slow, but this is the most reliable way we currently have to treat addiction," says Dr. Takao Kagomoto, director of the Osaka Psychiatric Medical Center.

Shibuya: How does the public see this controversy?

Okano: The public is split. According to a national poll conducted by NHK last December, just before the bill was passed, 12 percent of the population supported it, 44 percent opposed it, and 34 percent were undecided. As we've seen in the story, one major concern is the increase in addiction. Another concern is that crime rates will increase in the areas that surround casinos because organized crime may move in. And, above all, there are also fundamental questions about whether IRs will actually benefit the local economy. Experts say that visitors will spend money inside resorts that include huge shopping malls, and won't visit local shops in the area.

Beppu: So what’s next going to happen next?

Okano: The government hopes to introduce another bill with details about the resorts as early as this fall. It will include measures to counter addiction. But, it remains to be seen, whether the second bill will defuse the concerns of the opponents. As for Osaka, local governments hope the first resorts will open as early as 2023. Officials see support from the local community as crucial, and they will organize meetings in 10 locations to explain their plan. Here again, I think it is important that the officials address the concerns of the people.