Japan casino expo gets underway under a cloud of controversy


japan-casino-yokohama-integrated-resort-expo-protestJapan’s casino wannabes put on their best faces this week for the first Japan IR Expo, even as public support for integrated resorts (IR) continues to erode amid political corruption probes.

On Wednesday, six international casino operators hoping to win one of three Japanese IR licenses gathered in Yokohama for the first public exhibition of their respective offerings. The event was somewhat overshadowed by a crowd of anti-casino protesters who gathered outside the exhibition hall.

As reported by Inside Asian Gaming, at least one protester made it inside and disrupted a keynote address by Yokohama’s deputy mayor, shouting “we don’t need a casino” before being politely escorted back to his seat by a staff member.

The Japanese public has never really been overly enthusiastic about the IR idea, but their opposition got a real boost on Christmas day, when Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) member Tsukasa Akimoto was arrested on suspicion of accepting bribes from a would-be casino operator trying to boost its chances of winning a license.

Last Friday, Japanese media revealed that Tokyo prosecutors had raided the local office of casino operator Melco Resorts & Entertainment (MRE), reportedly looking for evidence that Akimoto’s visit to an MRE casino in Macau didn’t involve any under-the-table incentives.

MRE, which was in attendance at the Expo in line with its ‘Yokohama first’ strategy for Japan, has yet to issue a public statement on the matter but Reuters reported Wednesday that a source had confirmed MRE was cooperating with prosecutors in their Akimoto investigation.

Earlier this month, sources close to the LDP claimed the government was considering whether to freeze the whole IR process. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe brushed aside such talk a few days later, insisting that casinos were necessary for Japan to achieve its international tourism objectives. However, Abe did suggest that rules governing contact between officials and casino operators be written into the as-yet unfinished IR regulations.

Back at the Yokohama Expo, Las Vegas Sands exec George Tanasijevich said the government needed to do a better job of educating the public to “reduce misconceptions about our industry and its impact on the market.”

No kidding. This week, the Asahi Shimbun released the results of a survey showed 63% of respondents were against the government going forward with its IR plans, while only 27% wanted the government to stay the course. Even among supporters of President Abe, only 36% still supported casinos while 50% wanted Abe to freeze the process.