Japan may gamble on tourist only casinos

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The stress of trying to cope with 20 years of financial indiscipline has prompted many of Japan’s struggling local authorities to break one of the country’s great taboos.

Desperately short of macroeconomic growth but blessed with plenty of baccarat-loving Chinese tourists, the change, say gaming experts, may be easier for the country to stomach if new casinos are opened with a simple caveat: that Japanese will never be allowed through their doors. It should not matter too much because the Chinese will gamble enough for everyone, say the experts.

The proposals to allow casinos also reflect a growing, though grudging, recognition in Japan that the commercial power of Chinese tourism should no longer be treated with disdain.

Committees have been established by several local governors, investigating first whether the law could be tweaked to allow casinos and then, critically, whether it would be possible to run one without the yakuza crime gangs forcing their way into the action.

Japan’s official position on gambling has long been riddled with contradiction. Betting is legal on horse, bicycle and power-boat racing within certain, tightly controlled contexts, and the country has a national lottery.

But, via a lightly policed grey market, hundreds of billions of yen are also gambled every year in the country’s ubiquitous pachinko pinball parlours. Some take the view that Japan’s 14,700 pachinko outlets already satisfy the full extent of the national appetite for gambling, while others believe it implies a roaring, pent-up desire to blow everything on the turn of a card if only the facility were there.

The policy of building a casino and not allowing locals to gamble is not unprecedented in Asia. Several casinos have been built around Seoul on that principle. The new casinos in Singapore will be free for foreigners to enter, but will cost locals a steep entrance fee.

Universal Entertainment, the Japanese group that holds the largest stake in Wynn Resorts, the Las Vegas and Macau gaming giant, unsurprisingly, believes that Japan’s casino taboo should be broken in full. Discussions on casinos are being held across Japan and “there is not much meaning in limiting the audience to foreigners,” said the company’s spokesman.

Kanagawa prefecture, with the mega-city of Yokohama at its heart, has openly begun its casino planning, as has the cash-strapped island of Okinawa to the far south of the archipelago.

Plans in Chiba are understood to be the most ambitious. The prefecture contains Tokyo’s main Narita international airport, through which more than eight million foreigners pass on their way to other parts of Japan.

However, the airport lies more than an hour from Tokyo and is facing increased competition. Capturing tourists in a giant casino could prove the last throw of the dice by desperate local officials.

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Johnnie Moore

Poker player extraordinaire from the sunny state of Cali. When I'm not hitting the tables in the casino or driving my sports cars in the desert, you'll find me walking my dogs in the mountains. Be the best, live the best.