TOKYO -- Legislation to pave the way for legal casino gambling in Japan passed a lower house committee Friday after minimal debate, over objections by opposition parties and even a member of the ruling coalition.
The bill was pushed through in two days after just six-plus hours of discussion. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government sees casinos -- technically "integrated resorts" that include other amenities -- as a way to sustain inbound tourism after the 2020 Summer Olympics.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and other backers, including the opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai, aim to pass the legislation in the current Diet session, which has been extended until Dec. 14.
The opposition Democratic Party walked out of Friday's committee vote in protest, while junior coalition partner Komeito could not reach a consensus on how to vote amid serious concerns about such issues as gambling addiction. Komeito leaders allowed committee members to vote their conscience for the first time since 2009.
Debate focused on whether casinos can be treated as an exception to the penal code, which bans gambling but states that acts "performed in accordance with laws and regulations or in the pursuit of lawful business" are not punishable. Supporters of the bill argued that passing legislation to allow casinos would make them "lawful business."
The question is whether casinos can be recognized as being in the public interest, as are such other state-sanctioned forms of gambling as lotteries and betting on horse races. A portion of the proceeds from these activities is paid to the national treasury. While the casino bill states that the central government or local governments can levy fees on casino operators or patrons, the Democratic Party noted that this is not a requirement.
Key to answering the public-interest question is determining the economic benefits of casinos, a point on which the committee was split. The LDP contends that legalization will boost construction demand, create jobs and help revitalize regional economies, as well as contribute to the government's goal of increasing foreign visitors from roughly 20 million now to 60 million a year by 2030.
But the Japanese Communist Party pointed out that overseas casinos are struggling with a slump in Chinese visitors. The Democrats also questioned whether the economic benefits have been adequately established.
Nippon Ishin no Kai sees Osaka, its base of support, as a potential casino location. A proposal to build an integrated resort on Yumeshima, an artificial island in Osaka Bay, has been touted for the possibility of synergies with the prefectural government's bid to host the 2025 World Expo.
An integrated-resort study group headed by H.I.S. unit Huis Ten Bosch, the operator of a Dutch-themed amusement park near Nagasaki, is looking to bring a casino to the park's home city of Sasebo. Other proposed casino locations include Yokohama and the northern island of Hokkaido.
Both the ruling coalition and the opposition raised concerns about addiction and the potential for involvement by organized crime. The LDP held that strictly regulating who can enter casinos and setting up a government watchdog would minimize these risks. Putting some casino profits toward measures to combat gambling addiction will also be considered, though the bill makes no direct mention of addiction -- a point that concerned the Buddhist-inspired Komeito.