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Politics

Japan caught in a casino conundrum as addiction enters the debate

How to balance the harm with the economic benefits remains a challenge

TOKYO -- As Japan moves to allow casino gambling to spur inbound tourism, preventing addiction among its residents has become a flashpoint for lawmakers advocating business freedom and those in favor of strong regulation.

The government proposed to ruling party lawmakers Wednesday a casino admission fee of 2,000 yen ($18) per visit to those living in the country.

"The amount is high enough to curb access without imposing an onerous burden on business operators," a government official said.

The government cited a survey with about 159,000 respondents to explain the sum. In it, 46% said they would go to a casino with an entrance charge of about 1,000 yen. But the share dropped to 28% for a fee of around 2,000 yen.

In Singapore, casinos charge residents an entrance fee of 100 Singapore dollars ($75) per day, higher than that under consideration in Japan. But such levies are rarely charged at casinos around the world, making their effectiveness against gambling addiction difficult to establish.

Japanese legislation passed in 2016 to lift the ban on casinos as long as they are part of so-called integrated resorts that include hotels and conference facilities. The government plans to submit legislation setting specific operational rules to the current Diet session.

Reaction was mixed Wednesday at a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Kozo Yamamoto, a former state minister for regional revitalization, argued that the government should not interfere with business decisions. On the other hand, upper house member Masamune Wada called for a fee of 8,000 yen to 10,000 yen. Many in junior coalition partner Komeito supported a higher charge as well.

An idea floated earlier to limit casino access to foreign visitors was quickly rejected in order to realize a bigger economic boost. But Komeito and opposition forces are pushing for tighter controls to combat gambling addiction.

The proposal also calls for limiting visits by residents to three times in a seven-day period and 10 times in a 28-day period. Residents would also have to present their national identification cards to enter. Japan introduced the ID number card system in 2016, but only about 10% of the population has obtained cards.

"It is not clear whether Japanese are welcome at casinos or not," an LDP member said.

Toru Mihara, a professor at the Osaka University of Commerce, warned that overregulation would dilute casinos' economic benefits and revitalizing effect on communities. "Whether to enter a casino is the free choice of individuals," said Mihara, who argued that the proposals are haphazard and that the private sector could take responsibility for steps to restrict access.

The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan is demanding that casinos should be banned altogether, making it difficult to draw up a cross-partisan bill.

Another key consideration is keeping organized crime from using casinos to launder money and generate income. Operators may have to report exchanges of cash and tokens above a certain amount. A new committee may screen casino operators for any links to criminal groups. If a member enters a casino, that person and the operator could both be penalized.

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