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Economy

Casino law won't offer Japan an instant jackpot

Red tape will keep country from cashing in until long after Olympics

Japan's gambling law allows casinos free rein to loan money to visitors.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Even under a new measure to legalize gambling resorts in a bid to attract tourism, Japan's first casino will not open until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are but a memory.

A number of localities are competing to become casino destinations and so stimulate their economies. But realistically, no casino can actually start operating until the mid-2020s.

"Between design and construction, it will take four and a half years," Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui told reporters on Thursday. If Osaka wishes to open a casino resort by fiscal 2024 -- in time for the 2025 World Expo it seeks to host -- he said the design phase must begin in 2019.

A prefecture wishing to open a casino resort needs approval from the central government, which is initially granting just three casino licenses, as well as the consent of the locality that will host the facility.

Given this timeline, casino cities will not be selected at least until fiscal 2021, a central government official estimates. And construction is expected to take at least three years.

The casinos themselves must also be part of so-called integrated resorts, taking up no more than 3% of the total area.

Matsui said he seeks to accelerate the process by lobbying the central government to issue provisional authorization to open casino resorts before drawing up relevant guidelines.

Nagasaki Prefecture, meanwhile, is looking to build a multipurpose facility in Sasebo, the city known for Dutch-themed amusement park Huis Ten Bosch. The new casino resort would host conventions, concerts and sporting events, and lodging will also be available.

Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura said on Tuesday that the central Japanese city should throw its hat into the ring. Another Nagoya official takes a more cautious stance, saying: "I would like to consider how we will respond as we gather and sort out information."

Tokyo is also considered a host candidate. But Gov. Yuriko Koike does not share the enthusiasm. "There are voices concerned with addiction and other problems," she said in a Friday news conference. "We need to consider the merits and the drawbacks."

Koike echoes the apprehensions that have caused Japanese casinos to be rolled out in baby steps. Opposition forces have been among the loudest detractors. The legislation originally called for a casino to take up either 3% of an integrated resort or 15,000 sq. meters, whichever is smaller. The latter was dropped from the final version, drawing arguments from opposition lawmakers that the change allows megacasinos.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government touts some of the world's toughest measures against gambling addiction. Residents of Japan will be limited to three visits a week and 10 trips a month. They will also have to pay a 6,000 yen ($50) entry fee.

But these measures have been questioned. "Some may enter thinking they will win back the entry fee, which would pose the risk of people being taken in by casinos," said Koji Niisato, a Sendai attorney who leads an anti-casino group and is unimpressed by the monthly cap.

"Going to casinos over 100 times a year represents a legitimate addiction," he said.

Another area of concern touched on by Niisato is how casinos will be free to lend money to guests. Japanese law lets individuals borrow only up to one-third of their annual income from certain consumer lenders, but casinos are exempt. The ruling coalition holds that tourists should be free to manage their money, while Niisato foresees an increase in victims.

"It's not just visitors to Japan -- the assets of Japan's elderly are being targeted," he warned.

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