Japan approves plan for country’s first casino resort

Japan has approved plans for the country’s first casino, paving the way to open up what is seen as one of Asia’s largest untapped casino markets.

To be located on Yumeshima, an artificial island in Osaka, the casino will be part of a ¥1.08 trillion (about $8.1 billion) “integrated resort.” With a theater, art museum, conference hall and other facilities, the resort is expected to open in 2029 and expects to attract 20 million visitors annually. Osaka submitted plans in April for the development, which is backed in part by US casino operator MGM Resorts International and Japan’s Orix Corporation.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday that he hopes the resort and casino “will become a tourism base that promotes Japan’s charm to the world.”

The resort’s approval comes as Japan seeks to boost tourism and marks a significant shift in a nation that banned casino gambling until 2018. Japan reopened its borders to international travelers in October after more than two and a half years of strict pandemic policies.

Investors see Japan, home to 125 million people, as a golden egg. Goldman Sachs predicted in 2018 that Japan could become one of the largest casino markets in Asia, second only to Macau. A similar resort project in Nagasaki, Japan is also awaiting approval.

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However, the plans in Osaka have divided the public, with some worried about an increase in organized crime, gambling addiction and the use of public resources. Dozens of local residents demonstrated in response to the decision to approve the plans on Friday, Japanese media reported.

By opening the casino, Japan is poised to follow in the footsteps of Singapore, which legalized casinos in 2005 and whose Marina Bay Sands integrated resort earned more than $400 million in gaming revenue in the last quarter of 2022.

Should the plan go through, Japan will enter a market long dominated by Macao, a special administrative district in China that is sometimes called the “Vegas of Asia.” While gambling is banned in mainland China, Macao operates separately under a policy called “one country, two systems.” However, Covid-19 shutdowns and corruption scandals in Macau have led some casino operators to move operations to Southeast Asia, where there are more than 340 casinos, according to the South China Morning Post.

While neighboring South Korea is home to several casinos, gambling is illegal for local citizens.

Japan has lotteries, race betting and many pachinko parlors (for a game that is a cross between pinball and a slot machine), but only legalized gambling at resorts in 2018. The hotly debated legislation took years to pass and succeeded only after the government emphasized tight regulations. The law limits Japanese residents to three casino visits per week and 10 per month. Residents must pay 6,000 yen (about $45) for entry, while international visitors can enter for free.

According to a document from MGM, 1.4 billion yen (about 10.5 million dollars) will go to deter gambling addiction. The document states that the casino will “contribute to research into measures to combat gambling addiction”.

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