Japan making up for lost time over IRs

Japan making up for lost time over IRs
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

After procrastinating for over a decade, Japan is now in a rush against time to build integrated resorts (IRs) ahead of the 2020 Olympics which Tokyo is to host.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's inspection last week of Singapore's two successful integrated resorts at Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa is expected to help jump-start the process.

The construction of IRs - which feature casinos in addition to retail, entertainment, hotel and conference facilities - could play a major role in Mr Abe's growth plans for his country.

He told reporters when visiting Singapore: "I think integrated resorts will be a key part of Japan's economic growth strategy."

Besides increased spending by tourists, IRs are expected to stoke investments, create jobs and raise tax revenues.

He said he would like to see deliberation of IRs by lawmakers from the viewpoint of what needs to be done to bolster Japan's attractiveness and how to get people to visit Japan.

Last year, Japan attracted just over 10 million foreign visitors. The government wants to double the figure by 2020.

Tokyo's securing of the right last year to host the 2020 Olympic Games gave the Abe administration one more reason to push for the building of casinos.

Last December, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), together with two small opposition parties, tabled a Bill in Parliament to legalise casinos.

LDP lawmaker Takeshi Iwaya of the pro-casino camp said on Tuesday that Parliament could start discussing the Bill next week. Mr Abe's visit to Singapore is expected to give a strong impetus to the discussions. He is supreme adviser to a non-partisan group of lawmakers backing the move.

"It is best to strike while the iron is hot," Mr Iwaya told Reuters news agency.

If the Bill is passed before year end, the government still needs to pass a second Bill concerning regulations by 2016 to allow sufficient time to construct the IRs.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs said Japan will host a US$15.1 billion (S$19 billion) casino gambling industry by 2020, putting it third in the world after the United States and Macau.

Foreign casino operators are eyeing the Japanese market not just because of the large number of affluent Japanese in this country of 127 million people, but also because Japan is just a few hours away by air from major Chinese cities filled with rich Chinese.

It is not clear how many IRs Japan will eventually have.

Tokyo is highly tipped to have one, likely to be located in the waterfront area called Odaiba.

Many local governments, from Okinawa in the south to Hokkaido in the north, are also vying for IRs to stimulate their economies. The proposal to legalise casino gambling in Japan has been around for over 10 years.

But it was never taken up seriously due to strong opposition to gambling and also because of rapid changes of government in the past decade, forcing political leaders to put it on the back burner.

Casinos are illegal in Japan as gambling is a criminal offence.

However, Japan has long had state-sanctioned betting on horse, bicycle and boat races.

Opposition to casinos remains strong because it is believed they would encourage gambling addiction, cause the deterioration of public order and involve organised crime syndicates.

"We should first give highest priority to examining the negative effects of casinos," the Mainichi Shimbun daily said in an editorial on Monday.

wengkin@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 05, 2014.
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