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Japan passes controversial law to allow casinos

3 min

Tokyo (AFP)

Japan on Friday enacted a controversial law to allow casinos that the government says will boost tourism and growth but was bitterly opposed by the opposition.

In a last-ditch attempt to delay the vote on the bill in the upper house, opposition lawmakers called a confidence vote on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet, despite the premier being guaranteed an easy win by his large parliamentary majority.

Japan's government has long touted the drive for mega "integrated resorts" (IRs) that will include casinos, entertainment venues, restaurants, hotel and conference halls, on the Las Vegas model.

It argues the casinos will bring in tourist and business spending, like other regional gambling destinations in Singapore and Macau, and provide a shot in the arm for a stagnant economy.

But legislation has been controversial, including among activists concerned about Japan's already well-documented problem with gambling addiction.

The law enacted Friday allows the construction of three IR facilities, and comes after the more powerful lower house approved the same bill in June.

"Japanese IRs are not only about casinos," top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters Friday, ahead of the vote.

"It is an integrated resort facility that will help increase tourism across Japan," Suga said, adding that the law would help Japan "become a major tourism nation," and boost the economy as a whole.

- 'Holy Grail' of gaming -

Japan was long the only developed nation banning casinos but passed legislation in 2016 paving the way to legalise the industry.

Public opinion is heavily against the legislation, with 62 percent of voters saying in a survey earlier this month that they opposed it. Just 22 percent were in favour, with 16 percent unsure.

Bolstered by public opinion on the issue, the opposition fought hard with administrative measures to delay a vote on the legislation.

They also criticised the government for prioritising the bill over measures to address a massive floods and landslides that hit western Japan earlier this month killing more than 200 people.

"There are countless reasons that the Abe administration deserves a no-confidence (resolution)," said Yukio Edano, leader of the main opposition.

The casino bill is "not something that we have to make a hasty decision on" as Japan still faces disaster relief measures in western Japan, Edano said in the lower house after submitting the no-confidence resolution.

Despite the new legislation, experts say it will likely still be years before casino operators start breaking ground on facilities. And they do not expect casinos to actually open for another 5-7 years.

The legislation kicks off a process that will see local regions bid for the right to host one of the three facilities, but no timeframe has been set for that process and issues including establishing a regulatory body remain to be resolved.

Japan is often viewed as the Holy Grail of gaming in Asia due to its wealthy population, proximity to gamblers from China and an appetite for other forms of legal gambling, including horse racing and pachinko, a slot machine-style game.

Economists estimate the casino industry could bring in takings of 2.0-3.7 trillion yen ($18 billion to $34 billion) a year.

National and regional governments plan a combined tax of 30 percent on gaming revenues.

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