Gambling addiction often comes up in discussions on whether to legalize casinos in Japan.
Some observers believe that Japanese people are particularly susceptible to gambling addiction, and that the condition is incurable. But is this really true? I looked into these issues at a hospital specialising in gambling addiction that offers the latest counseling to patients.
A woman in her 60s recently received counseling at the department for gambling addiction established last summer at the National Hospital Organisation Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. She became addicted to betting on horse races about 10 years ago. She had lost a total of ¥2.5 million so far but could not stop and kept borrowing money to place bets.
"Betting on horse races is an investment. I won't quit," the woman said at first. "It's to get more money for my living expenses when I'm old."
However, as psychiatrist Yasunobu Komoto continued talking with her, she told him another purpose. "I want to raise money to help people around me," the woman said.
If a person's motivation for gambling only comes from a desire for money, they remember themselves and stop betting when they get into a losing streak. However, the woman was also trying to satisfy a desire to take care of other people - a hunger for a kind of recognition - which caused her to get addicted to horse races.
Komoto did not tell her to stop betting on horse races, but instead presented conditions for continuing. "You should narrow down your purposes for betting on horse races to one," he said. Komoto thought that as long as she bet on horse races for just one purpose, whether to satisfy a desire for money or just to kill time, she would not descend into a pathological condition.
He also recommended volunteering to satisfy her desire to take care of other people in a different way.
The woman started working as a helper in her neighborhood and became less interested in horse races. Regarding the money, she felt, "It's not worth the expense because I've kept losing." She started recovering as quickly as if an evil spirit had left her.
According to a survey conducted by a government research team last year, 8.7 percent of adult men and 1.8 percent of adult women are suspected of being addicted to gambling. In the United States and European countries, the percentage is about 1 percent.
This has led to the extreme opinion that even if casinos are legalized in this nation, Japanese people should not be allowed to patronize them.
However, could a country where nearly 10 percent of adult men have a gambling addiction maintain a position as the third-largest economy in the world?
"The questionnaire used in the survey was based on people who go to casinos in the United States. Therefore, in Japan, where people can easily pop into a pachinko parlour, the number of suspected gambling addicts gets inflated," Komoto said.
He also said: "According to an overseas survey, most people who develop gambling addictions stop gambling naturally or return to problem-free gambling. I think only about 10 percent develop serious addictions."
However, once people are diagnosed with a gambling addiction at medical institutions, they are usually deemed to suffer from it for life and are forbidden from any further gambling.
The woman described earlier recovered after several counseling sessions at the centre, although she had a serious addiction at first. If she had gone to another hospital, her problem could have become worse.
"The latest brain research shows no evidence that gambling addiction is incurable. Casual judgments can drive patients into a corner," Komoto said.
Addictions tend to worsen in people with extremely low self-esteem, as they seek to gain a sense of accomplishment or superiority, or escape from reality. Labeling such people as incurable could further lower their sense of self-worth.
The centre's new attempt has just started. "I want all of society to think about appropriate therapies," Komoto said.
People are usually diagnosed with a gambling addiction when they display multiple symptoms or behaviours over a prolonged period of time, such as the desire to increase their gambling stakes to get a feeling of excitement or gambling when they are in distress.