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Komeito caught off guard as LDP, JIP roll casino bill through lower house committee

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rammed a bill to promote the establishment of "integrated resorts" featuring casinos through a House of Representatives committee on Dec. 2 with support from Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party, JIP), catching the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito off guard.

JIP is looking to bring casinos to Osaka, and the prime minister's office placed value on cooperating with the party to have the bill pass the committee. Lawmakers voted on the bill after only a little over six hours of debate over two days. Komeito, caught off-balance by the sudden move, let its members vote freely on the bill without a party-imposed direction.

Ahead of the vote, Wataru Takeshita, chairman of the LDP's Diet Affairs Committee, explained to his Democratic Party (DP) counterpart Kazunori Yamanoi why the LDP was moving to get the bill passed during the current extended Diet session, telling him, "If discussions are carried over into the regular Diet session next year, the bills submitted by the government will be given priority, and this bill sponsored by Diet members will be put on the back burner."

Yamanoi protested that the bill would be a "cause of trouble down the road," but soon afterwards the LDP went through with the vote.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has labeled the current Diet session as one for "acceleration of growth strategies." The Diet session was extended to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but with United States President-elect Donald Trump's declaration that he will withdraw from the trade accord, the future of related legislation has been left up in the air.

A bill for pension reform that is also under debate in the extended session aims to restrict pension payments. This bill and other measures offer little in the way of support for households and rural areas. Local governments, however, have long sought a law allowing casinos, and so talk arose of trying to have the bill passed during the remainder of the session. During debate on Dec. 2, LDP legislator Yasutoshi Nishimura argued the bill would "contribute to regional economies."

At a meeting of senior LDP and Komeito officials on Nov. 28, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga sought cooperation in getting the casino bill passed, saying, "I want you to consider the bill from the view of (Japan as) a tourism-oriented country." It is uncommon for the government to urge passage of a lawmaker-initiated bill, and this support contributed to the LDP's firm stance on the legislation.

On Nov. 9, JIP head and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, who is on close terms with Abe and Suga, met with Suga at the prime minister's office, seeking cooperation on the casino bill as well as on a bid to host the 2025 World Exposition in Osaka.

Matsui said on Dec. 2, "I want (the casino bill) to clear the House of Councillors as well. We will handle gambling addiction countermeasures during work on the implementation bill (that will come afterwards)."

During the current Diet session, opposition parties have protested over ruling coalition gaffes, such as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda's remark comparing opposition parties' arguments in the Diet to "backwoods pro wrestling," but JIP has nonetheless continued to cooperate with the LDP. It appears that Suga's stance on the casino bill was partly aimed at appeasing JIP.

However, the heavy-handed manner in which the LDP rammed the casino bill though the committee unsettled Komeito. Within Komeito's support body Soka Gakkai, there is a firmly rooted reluctance toward legalizing casinos, and Komeito was prepared to extend debate on the bill into the next Diet session. Disquieted by the early move to pass the bill, Yoshio Urushibara, chairman of Komeito's central secretariat on Dec. 1 said, "We should debate this without rushing to a conclusion," but his attempt to apply the brakes came too late. A senior party official admitted, "We misread the situation."

Komeito Secretary-General Yoshihisa Inoue apologized at a meeting of the party after the casino bill passed, saying, "There was not enough debate and we failed to reach a consensus. I accept responsibility." The passage of the casino bill could lead to friction in the LDP-Komeito alliance.

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