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Casino project raises concerns for Japan's gamblers 16/07/18
• Gambling experts are concerned about plans by major Las Vegas operators to set up in Osaka

When she she looks back on her childhood, Noriko Tanaka isn’t surprised she grew up to be a problem gambler. Her grandfather spent every spare moment playing pachinko – a pinball-like game with payouts – while her father bet regularly on bicycle races.

At home, they taught Tanaka how to stake money on card games before she had reached her teens. “It was that kind of household, although no one drank alcohol,” she said. “Everyone lived for gambling.”

She married an inveterate gambler, and by the time she was in her 30s realised that the casual bets she once placed on motorboat races had become a compulsion that had left her and her husband deep in debt.

As head of a group campaigning to raise awareness of gambling addiction, Tanaka now faces a battle on another front. Having lifted the ban on casinos in 2016 after 15 years of debate, Japan’s parliament recently passed a bill setting out how they should be run, in response to claims that they will create a new generation of problem gamblers.

Once described as the “final frontier” for casinos, Japan has dropped its official resistance to their legalisation amid evidence that it stands to gain billions of dollars in tax revenue and could rival Las Vegas and Macau as a magnet for foreign tourists.

Industry analysts believe the move will create tens of thousands of jobs and boost the economies of cities such as Osaka, the current favourite to host the country’s first casino.

With its large middle-class and growing popularity as a tourist destination, Japan has attracted the attention of leading operators, including Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts, which have suggested they are each prepared to invest $10bn (£7.6bn) in a proposed casino project in Osaka.

Economists have estimated the casino industry could bring in takings of ¥2tn to ¥3.7tn ($18bn to $34bn) a year, with national and local governments helping themselves to a 30% tax on revenues.

The casinos, which will initially be built in three locations starting sometime around 2022, will be part of “integrated resorts” that include hotels, conference rooms, shops, restaurants and event spaces.

The government said it will take steps to deter organised crime, such as running background checks on firms that apply for casino licences, with fines of up to 500m yen for those who submit false applications.

But critics said the new law has failed to address the problem of gambling addiction. Last year a government survey found that an estimated 3.2 million Japanese have at some time in their lives been hooked on pachinko, football pools, lotteries and government-run races involving horses, bicycles, speedboats and motorbikes.

Most are addicted to pachinko, in which players get around strict gaming laws by exchanging prizes and tokens for cash off the premises. While the sector has declined in recent years, its 4.3m machines at 10,000 locations across the country together generate revenue of more than ¥20tn a year. .

In an attempt to limit exposure to slot machines and poker tables, Japanese citizens will be charged ¥6,000 admission to casinos, with visits restricted to three times a week or 10 times a month. Admission will be free for foreign tourists.

Ichiro Tanioka, the president of Osaka University of Commerce and an expert in the economics of gambling, supports lifting the casino ban but describes measures outlined to address addiction as “meaningless”.

“The law calls on the industry to cooperate to tackle addiction, but nowhere does it say how much funding will be provided and how it will be spent. Unless these details are worked out then these can’t be described as measures to tackle addiction,” he said.

The Japanese public remains firmly against casino legalisation. A recent poll by Kyodo news agency found that 65% opposed it, with 26% in favour.

Tanaka, who hasn’t gambled for 14 years, believes the government should immediately make ¥5bn available to fund services to address what she believes will be an inevitable rise in the number of addicts.

“There are very few specialists in gambling addiction in Japan, and the number of self-help meetings here is a fraction of that in the US,” she said. “The arrival of casinos will bring Japan to the brink of an addiction crisis.”