July 26, 2014 2:03 am JST

Japan eyes opening 3 casinos by 2020

TOKYO -- Foreigners visiting Japan for the next Tokyo Olympics may be able to try their hand at a different sort of game: casino gambling.

     The government plans to pick three or so locations for casinos out of 20-odd municipalities that have expressed an interest in hosting them, people familiar with the plans say. The casinos would open before the 2020 Summer Olympics.

     A cross-partisan group of lawmakers, including members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, have proposed legislation that would allow casino gambling. They hope to enact the bill during the fall parliamentary session but face reluctance within the LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito amid concerns about gambling addiction, crime and other potential side effects.

     To address such concerns, the government set up a planning team this month that would take the lead in crafting rules and follow-up legislation once the initial bill has passed.

     The city of Osaka -- which has proposed Yumeshima, a man-made island, as a casino site -- is seen as a leading candidate. So are Okinawa Prefecture, out to make itself a magnet for foreign tourists, and Yokohama, whose port accommodates luxury liners. The government will consider allowing more casinos after gauging their social impact.

     Meanwhile, preparations for the Olympics are getting underway in Tokyo. Casino building could exacerbate already serious shortages of construction materials and labor. With Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe showing little enthusiasm for hosting a gambling resort, the government is unlikely to designate the capital as a location.

     As a model for turning Japan into a gambling destination, the government is looking not to sprawling Las Vegas or Macau but to Singapore, where small clusters of casinos form part of bigger resorts including hotels, conference centers and shopping malls.

      As in Singapore, casino admission would be free for foreigners. Japanese citizens would likely pay several thousand yen (less than $100) to get in and face other restrictions on gambling. In Singapore, natives are charged 100 Singapore dollars ($80). Such restrictions are meant to curb gambling dependency in the local population.

      Building a quartet of casinos in Tokyo, Osaka and Okinawa would create a 1.5 trillion yen ($14.5 billion) market, Goldman Sachs Japan estimates. A broad range of businesses could cash in, including real estate developers and game machine makers, as well as local hotels and retailers.

     The government has set a goal of 20 million foreign visitors annually -- twice as many as last year -- by 2020.