The wheels of government can grind slowly at times. It took some 15 years of back-and-forth political infighting for Japan to legalise casino gambling, as the parliament did in December 2016. But it will still be at least five years, experts say, before you will be able to place blackjack and roulette bets in a Japanese casino.
Japan is not a stranger to gambling. Games of chance, especially card games, were popular with ancient nobility five hundred years ago. The average Japanese citizen had neither the time nor the money to indulge the vice. When Portuguese sailors arrived in the islands in 1549 they brought with them a simplified 48-card European deck and simpler card games. These made gambling quicker and more accessible and betting became so popular among Japanese citizens that gambling on card games was banned when Japan closed its doors to the West in the 1600s.
Lotteries, which began appearing about the same time, were still available for a couple of hundred years before being shut down in 1842. After World War II, the Japanese government re-started the nationwide lotteries known as Takarakuji, or “treasure lottery.” The funds raised went into government coffers but today are distributed to charitable organizations.
In the meantime gambling in Japan had passed the nation’s Criminal Code in 1907 that restricted legalised gambling only to horse and bicycle racing. Later, motorboat and motorcycle betting were sanctified, as well. More comprehensive anti-gambling laws were passed in the 1990s in an effort to thwart organized crime.
Although opportunities to bet are limited, an estimated three million Japanese citizens are said to be addicted to gambling. The most visible culprit in the anti-gambling debate are Pachinko parlors where pinball-like machines draw thousands of patrons daily. Since gambling for cash is illegal, pachinko players swap their winnings for tokens which are exchanged for cash away from the parlor. Japan has far and away the most gaming machines in the world – more than 60 percent of all electronic gaming machines manufactured.
The quasi-legality of betting on games like Pachinko has raised concerns in Japan over money laundering, in addition to gambling addiction. As a result, some polls showed support for casino gambling in Japan to be as low as 12 percent. Nonetheless, the lure of tourism dollars and revenue from casinos finally carried the day for legalised casino gambling. Industry insiders consider Japan to be the world’s most lucrative casino market.
To soften the introduction of legalised casino betting, the gambling floors will be incorporated into hotel-shopping-conference centers. Before licenses are awarded and ground broken, however, additional legislation will be required to address such details as taxation, organized crime, and education in gambling addiction. Gambling proponents had hoped to have casinos open in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics but that will not happen.
In fact, Tokyo is not even being viewed as the most desirable location for the first Japanese casinos. Rather it is Osaka and Kansai that is being touted as the prize for casino developers. It is thought the smaller city can be better shaped as an entertainment destination, as Las Vegas is to Los Angeles. The industry’s biggest casino operators are working behind the scenes to make their cases for the first Japanese casino licenses and it will not be a surprise if those first bets are placed in Osaka.