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As Japan local gov'ts clamor for casino resorts, experts warn of gambling addiction

The interior of the Galaxy Macau casino in Macau. (Mainichi)
(Mainichi)

TOKYO -- A bill allowing for the establishment of so-called integrated resorts (IR) centered on casinos was approved by the Cabinet on April 27 and submitted for consideration by the Diet. Similar resorts in Macau have produced significant local economic benefits, and several Japanese local governments have raised their hands in hopes of being chosen to host one of the leisure and gambling wonderlands.

It is 4 a.m. on a mid-March day, and the casino floor of the sprawling Galaxy Macau resort in Macau's Cotai district is crowded with Chinese tourists. Above the floor, a giant electronic notice board proclaims a new millionaire has been minted below. At a baccarat table where Donald Trump once tried his luck, about 60 people watch six players scan their cards and place their bets. One man with 500,000 Hong Kong dollars (about $63,700) in play slams his fist on the table when he realizes he lost. The round took about a minute to play.

Since 2002, when Macau was opened to foreign investment, firms from the U.S. and other countries have poured into the Chinese territory. In 2006, Macau's casino revenue surpassed that of Las Vegas to become the most lucrative gambling center in the world. The economic impact has also been enormous, with some 32.6 million visitors to the city in 2017 -- a new record. That year, the casinos pulled down about 265.7 billion pataca (the local currency), equivalent to some 3.6 trillion yen or $32.9 billion. Tax payments from casinos accounted for around 80 percent of Macau's revenue in 2017.

In Japan, local governments including Osaka and Wakayama prefectures are looking to reap the same benefits of increased tourist numbers and local revitalization seen in Macau. According to calculations by the Daiwa Institute of Research, the three IRs allowed under the resorts bill would add more than 2 trillion yen per year to the economy.

However, while local governments are certainly keen to see one of the resorts in their jurisdiction, many observers have also voiced deep worries about the social and criminal problems that often accompany casinos, such as gambling addiction and money laundering.

An anti-gambling addiction information kiosk is seen in the Galaxy Macau casino in Macau. (Mainichi)

Gambling addiction emerged as a serious social issue in Macau after 2002, when foreign investment kick-started the casino boom. In response, the territory introduced a system allowing casino patrons and their families to apply to limit their access to the establishments. There are also kiosks throughout the casinos offering a 24-hour counseling hotline, and customers can also use the service to request they be barred from the casinos. These efforts apparently reduced the gambling addiction rate among adult residents from 4.3 percent in 2003 to 2.5 percent in 2016.

Under the Japanese IR bill, residents of Japan would be required to pay a 6,000-yen entrance fee to go into the casinos, and would also be restricted to three visits per week or 10 visits in a 28-day period. These compulsory measures enforced at the casino gate would be far more severe than the voluntary exclusion system in place in Macau. Furthermore, local casino patrons would be required to identify themselves with their government-issued ID cards, while the bill would also require casinos to set up gambling addiction help desks. Nevertheless, experts in Japan continue to warn of the gambling addiction threat.

"It's doubtful that there is any scientific evidence backing the proposition that the proposed fees and entry limits would reduce gambling addiction or prevent new cases," commented Toshihiko Matsumoto, a specialist in addiction at the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry. Casinos run regardless of the hour, enormous sums of money flowing through their gaming tables and slot machines around the clock. Noriko Tanaka, president of the group "Society Concerned about Gambling Addiction" told the Mainichi Shimbun that this, "likely leads people to a very quick bankruptcy once they become addicted."

(Japanese original by Yusuke Matsukura, Political News Department, Mamoru Ohara, Business News Department, and Kaori Gomi, Medical Welfare News Department)

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