BY ERIC JOHNSTON
OSAKA – Just a month ago, the Diet session opening Monday was expected to hotly debate but ultimately approve more specific measures on how Japan will operate what will eventually be its first casino resorts.
But following a casino-related bribery scandal that erupted in December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government finds itself facing increased public calls to reconsider and tougher political opposition toward their authorization, both of which could mean further delays before their eventual debut.
The scandal erupted when Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Tsukasa Akimoto was questioned and subsequently arrested on Christmas Day for allegedly accepting ¥3 million in cash in 2017 and about ¥760,000 for a trip to Hokkaido in 2018 from the Chinese company 500.com.
Earlier this month, Akimoto, who quit the LDP after his arrest, was indicted and served a fresh arrest warrant for allegedly accepting an additional ¥2 million in cash as well as a ¥1.5 million trip to China in 2017 from the same company. Akimoto had been a deputy minister at the Cabinet Office between August 2017 and September 2019, when he was in charge of developing policies for the so-called integrated resorts.
The scandal soon widened. Five more Diet members — including another four from the LDP — now stand accused of receiving money from 500.com. The four in the LDP — Takeshi Iwaya, Masahisa Miyazaki, Hiroyuki Nakamura and Toshimitsu Funahashi — maintain their innocence.
The fifth politician in the group, Mikio Shimoji of Nippon Ishin no Kai, led by Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, who is leading the charge to bring a resort to Osaka, admitted taking money from 500.com adviser Masahiko Konno. He later resigned from the party, but said Sunday night he was not resigning from the Diet.
As the so far six-politician scandal unfolds, public and political opposition to introducing casino resorts, which offer hotels, convention centers and shopping areas in addition to casinos, is growing.
A recent survey by Kyodo News showed nearly 71 percent think the government’s plans for casino resorts should be reconsidered. Only 21 percent replied it was fine to continue with the current plans. The major opposition parties have announced they will soon introduce a bill to abolish the law on integrated resorts.
“The casino-related bills were forcibly voted on in a very short period of time, leaving behind things that weren’t exhaustively debated,” Lower House member Hiroshi Ogushi of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan said on an NTV news program last week.
Abe’s administration, however, has said it will proceed with the preparations, though the prime minister himself admitted the scandal was causing unease.
“There is worry and distrust among many people, and we’ll take the necessary measures that are based on the (casino) law,” Abe said on a Jan. 12 program on NHK.
For his part, Nippon Ishin Upper House member Toranosuke Katayama said on the same program that the scandal should not affect any government’s desire to establish a casino resort.
“The scandal is separate from integrated resorts. Local governments that want to invite a resort should go ahead and do so,” he said.
The comments by the two came after the Japan Casino Regulatory Commission held its first meeting on Jan. 10. The five-member panel is headed by former prosecutor Michio Kitamura.
Its purpose is to review casino license applications (which includes checking whether the operator has a criminal record or ties to organized crime), supervise casino operators and their related games and machines, examine gambling addiction prevention policies, and work with casino regulators in other countries.
It has the power to issue licenses and, if violations are found, cancel them. The commission is affiliated with the Cabinet Office but operates independently.
Only three licenses for casino resorts will be granted initially. But the initial list of nine potential sites announced by the government last September has dwindled to seven after decisions in Hokkaido and the city of Chiba to pass on the bidding, at least for now.
In Yokohama, Mayor Fumiko Hayashi supports building a casino resort complex but faces stiff local opposition. Efforts to recall the mayor are underway, with opponents hoping to remove her from office by the end of the year. At the same time, Yokohama is reportedly earmarking ¥400 million in next year’s fiscal budget for activities related to bidding for a casino resort.
Elsewhere, Nagasaki and Wakayama prefectures have expressed interest in the resorts and are busy drumming up local support. To a lesser degree, there is also talk of building them in Nagoya and Kitakyushu.
But it’s Osaka, the frontrunner for the first license, that is most worried about the effect the scandal could have on the upcoming Diet debate and the central government’s goal of announcing where the first casino resorts will land in the second half of 2021 or 2022.
With three groups vying for the rights to an Osaka resort, the city hopes to make its choice by this summer, sign a contract with the winner and be first in line when the central government starts accepting bids in January 2021.
Speaking about Akimoto’s arrest late last year, Osaka’s Matsui dismissed the scandal, saying it amounted to Akimoto bragging about powers he didn’t have.
“It’s the local government that wants a casino resort that has the authority to decide which IR operator to use, not a deputy minister,” Matsui told reporters in Osaka on Dec. 26.
Privately, Osaka officials are nervous. Prior to Akimoto’s arrest, there had been worries about how much time the Diet would take this year to debate issues such as money laundering, crime prevention and problem gambling, and whether that could mean a delay of months or longer on the first casinos.
With Akimoto’s arrest and the investigations into other lawmakers only heightening worries in the Diet and the bureaucracy about casino resorts, governments like Osaka that want one may soon be forced to push back their projections.
Their worries may even rise during the debates, especially if arrest warrants are handed to nonpoliticians while the Diet is in session. The Constitution basically doesn’t allow lawmakers to be arrested until the Diet is closed, which will happen on June 17 if there are no extensions.
With the 2020 Olympics set to begin at the end of July, however, Abe will be under great pressure to avoid a lengthy extension and to conclude as much Diet business as he can, including decisions on whatever recommendations about casino operations the regulatory committee comes up with.