Japan MP's arrest stokes doubts over casino vision

Monday 9th March 2020

When Hiroyuki Minakami heard that a leading MP for Japan's ruling party had been arrested on suspicion of taking bribes from a Chinese gaming company, it gave fresh hope in the fight against gambling in Yokohama bay.

Mr Minakami, head of the harbour's transport association, represents the dockers on Yamashita Pier whose warehouses would be bulldozed under a proposal to construct a multibillion-dollar casino resort on the site.

"This thing was rotten from the start," said Mr Minakami of a planned development south of Tokyo that is part of prime minister Shinzo Abe's ambitions to roll back decades of paternalistic regulation and bring Las Vegas-style casinos to Japan for the first time.

While the allegations that Tsukasa Akimoto, an upper house member, took ¥7.6m ($69,000) in bribes from a company called 500.com relate to a project on the northern island of Hokkaido, the fallout has been greatest in Yokohama. The city is a frontrunner for one of three casino licences expected nationwide, but local opposition is intense.

The question is how deep the alleged corruption goes and whether the allegations against Mr Akimoto, an architect of the 2016 law underpinning the casinos plan, are an isolated case. Casinos have strong government support but the allegations have shone a spotlight on the darker side of the gambling industry, energised the prime minister's opponents and stoked widespread public hostility to his plans.

Opinion polls show about two-thirds of Japanese reject Mr Abe's casino vision, rising to almost 80 per cent of Yokohama residents. Mr Minakami and others hope Mr Akimoto's arrest will be the first of many, ultimately making the proposals too toxic for politicians to support.

Mr Akimoto denies the allegations. "I have done nothing to advantage any particular operator," he said after being released on bail, having been charged with taking bribes. "I have absolutely not received any bribes." Prosecutors recently searched the local offices of Melco, a Hong Kong casino company. It is not clear whether that search related to Mr Akimoto but it suggested the probe is not yet over. Melco declined to comment.

Passage of the new casino law ignited a fierce contest between Japanese cities eager to tap the potential revenues. Global gaming companies including Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts, Genting and Melco are pursuing partnerships in concessions that will open up some of the world's wealthiest cities to casino gambling.

Osaka, Japan's second city, is thought likely to win one license, with MGM Resorts its most likely partner. Yokohama is favourite for another, with a queue of operators eager to become the city's partner at Yamashita Pier.

Nagasaki and Wakayama are in the running for the third, although these smaller cities are viewed as less attractive to operators. The capital Tokyo is keeping its options open and could yet submit a bid, according to one person involved in the process. "If Tokyo enters the competition it will be a complete game changer," the person said.

For Mr Abe, gaming and casinos are a route to much-needed economic growth. This becomes all the more pressed as the spread of the deadly coronavirus disrupts business. Las Vegas-style casinos also chime with his ambitions to reduce the regulation that Japan has long used to favour social stability over economic freedom.

Yet the regulatory framework for casinos and thus the award of concessions has been held up by the corruption furore. Casino backers insist political support remains strong and that the rules will be published in the next two months. But mounting public opposition has created doubt. Yokohama's mayor admitted recently that allegations surrounding the casino law were having an effect.

Takao Sugano, a retired bureaucrat campaigning against a Yokohama casino, said it would be terrible for the city. "School children go to Yamashita Park on day trips," he said. "A casino just won't suit us. It will destroy the atmosphere."

But Takanori Yuki, who is running the project at city hall, said a resort, with thousands of hotel rooms and high-rolling guests, would secure much-needed tax revenues and diversify the economy of Yokohama, a city in the shadow of Tokyo. "It is not that we lack tourist attractions but we have few overnight visitors," he said.

At Yamashita Pier, the longshoremen have moved to block any demolition work on the project. As nearby dockworkers load excavators into giant containers for export to south-east Asia, Mr Minakami said it was not about money -- his members would vacate the site for a long-planned convention centre, but not for a gambling resort.

"Would the police come and evict us on behalf of a casino?" he asked. "That would make the opposition stronger than ever."

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