Features - April 20th, 2005

After years of hedged bets, it looks like gambling is finally going to be legal in Tokyo says Laura Fumiko Keehn

WHEN TOKYO GOVERNOR Shintaro Ishihara was elected in 1999, one of his promises was to legalize casino gambling. He argued that casinos would expand the domestic tourist industry, create jobs and attract foreign investment. For a city teetering on the edge of a steady four-year tax revenue deficit, this should have been good news. However not all locals were so convinced — a significant part of Governor Ishihara’s campaign towards legalization was to “win public understanding,” as he explained to the metropolitan assembly in 2002.

It is now 2005. Major governmental organizations, including the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, as well the Organized Municipal Government Casino Research Association (Chihojichitai Casino Kenkyukai) have been working consistently towards legalization. Laws have been drafted and submitted, taxation proposed. It is now not a question of if, but when these laws will take affect.

A first time visitor might be forgiven for assuming that casino gambling is legal in Japan. Pachinko parlors and slot machines are everywhere, horse races are highly publicized, and casinos themselves are not hard to find. Of this list, however, the only fully legal activity is the horse races. Pachinko and slot machines are only ambiguously legal. The exploitation of a small loophole is enough to satisfy the authorities — winners must physically leave the venue (usually to a back alley three feet away) to trade in a winning token for cash. Though easily found in all the entertainment centers of Tokyo, casinos are actually completely illegal and, until recently, considered the sleaziest and dirtiest form of gambling, mainly due to close ties with the Japanese yakuza (Japanese mafia).

It is no secret that illegal casinos are a major source of revenue for the yakuza. Ichiro Tanioka, president of the Osaka University of Commerce and longtime advocate for the legalization of casino gambling, explained to the Yomiuri Online that ¥1 trillion changes hands each year at one illegal Shinjuku casino alone — and that the yakuza are making an estimated ¥50 billion a year through casino operations.

Masayoshi Oiwane, the president of the Japan Casino School and a long time campaign leader towards casino legalization, remembers his first experience with an illegal casino in Japan. “I didn’t know it was illegal,” he says. “It scared me to death when I found out. It’s against the law to even play in these places, and they’re violent. There’s no security system, and people get hot under the collar whenever money is involved.”

The Japanese aren’t just gambling at home, either. Over 70 percent of the gamblers visiting the Walker-hill Hotel and Casino in Seoul are Japanese citizens (see sidebar). It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that by legalizing casino gambling, the money flowing into the pockets of illegal and foreign casinos would be redirected back to the Japanese government. Many believe that legalization would also attract foreign investment and tourism.The Las Vegas Sands, for example, one of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas, has unveiled plans to open a casino in Macau — and invest $1.8 billion into the country.

However, detractors claim that raising the economy through such methods will lead to a decline in public morality. “I’m skeptical about seeking profit from games of chance,” Toshizo Ido, governor of Hyogo told the Yomiuri Online. “Especially now, when the work ethic has never been more important.”

Others, such as Oiwane, disagree, arguing that a legal casino industry would benefit morale and economy. “In the past our country was built on the manufacturing industry,” Oiwane points out. “But the future is the service industry. The level of service Japan can offer is possibly the highest in the world, and by legalizing casino gaming we will have the chance to capitalize on this, and to build on this industry on a world scale.”

Oiwane has put his money where his mouth is — he opened the Japan Casino School last year, the country’s first, and hopes to train over 1,000 dealers in time for the opening of legal casinos in Japan.

Last year, five years after heading the campaign towards legalization, Governor Ishihara announced that he was handing over the reigns to the lawmakers. Parliament is now in session, discussing the details of the submitted legalization proposals. The country is ready and waiting for the day casino gambling is legalized, opening the floodgates to international investment, boosting the negligible domestic tourist industry — and possibly revitalizing the future of a whole generation.



A former illegal casino dealer tells all

WEEKENDER: How did you become an illegal casino dealer?
DEALER: It started when I was in high school. One of my senpai (mentor) was a dealer. I thought it sounded cool.

Why did you want to do it?
The pay. For a little high schooler like me, ¥1,800 an hour sounded like a fortune.

Weren’t you nervous? Aren’t they all yakuza owned?
Yes, I was nervous and yes, they are all yakuza run. But again, the pay was great. Well I thought it was great. But when I finally got my first paycheck it was reduced to ¥800.

So you weren’t happy.
No. So when my senpai asked me if I wanted to make real money, I said of course. That’s how I worked for my first ikasama (clip joint) casino.

Was that the right decision?
Actually no. First of all they didn’t even pay me. Second, my old boss was really mad. I literally thought I was a dead man. But then the fall guy — he’s the one who puts his name on the business and takes the fall in case of any legal troubles — apologized for me and they let me go.

Can you tell us some scary stories?
There are so many. The scariest place to deal is definitely Shinjuku. The chabako (Chinese mafia-run casinos) were usually tough gigs. At one place the yojimbo (security man for the yakuza) was a real idiot. His job was to make sure no one was cheating, but he’d just play on the tables all day. He was scary, so the dealers had to cover up for his losses to keep him from blowing up at us. But he must have been stupid or something because I’ve never seen anyone lose as much as he did. It’s hard to win, but it’s even harder to lose like this guy did. One day he really did blow up. He drew a knife on the dealer and screamed about how he was being cheated. The dealer ran away real fast and it was a big mess.

Were you scared?
I was but I got over it and went back to work. The first time I dealt to a guy with no pinky (signal that someone is yakuza) I was so nervous I was shaking. But you get used to it.

So why did you get out of the game?
I quit because it stopped being fun and started to be a job. It got to be a bit too much. Everyone is always cheating everyone else. Fights were always breaking out, knives were drawn, guns came out. I just felt like my life was threatened too many times.

What do you think of casino legalization in Japan?
I think it’s a great idea. Get all those profits back into the city and out of the yakuza circuit. Maybe I’ll get back into the game once it’s all legalized.