Hokkaido White IR Fades Out

The decision by Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki to drop out of the Japan IR race does not simply remove one more local government from contention, it also represents the collapse of what was arguably the strongest IR initiative outside of the Kansai and Kanto regions, the regional IR which probably would have produced the highest financial returns.

Moreover, the Tomakomai city government had launched one of the nation’s first local government RFIs for the “Hokkaido White IR” in July 2017, and was in many ways the earliest IR mover, along with Osaka. It had already succeeded in attracting strong interest from many overseas IR operators.

Indeed, an end to Hokkaido’s IR initiative probably knocks Hard Rock, Rush Street, Mohegan, and Clairvest out of the Japan IR race altogether, as each of them had focused their efforts on Tomakomai and had even opened local offices in the city. None of these firms, however, has yet offered their public reaction to the events of the past week or so.

“The candidate site is likely inhabited by rare animals and plants, and it is impossible to give proper consideration to environmental matters within the limited period available,” the governor explained.

In the two-and-a-half years since the Tomakomai RFI was launched, it had been the Hokkaido Prefectural Government that had consistently dragged its feet, and the environmental issue had not been discussed as a potentially prohibitive matter throughout the previous rounds of investigation.

The environment impact studies may not, in fact, have been the real reason for Hokkaido’s withdrawal, but more of a convenient rationale.

The strongest factor guiding Suzuki’s decision was likely his knowledge that IR development was unpopular with the public, and not universally supported even within his own political coalition.

The Tomakomai city government, led by Mayor Hirofumi Iwakura, had from the beginning acted with decisiveness and strong purpose, but this was never matched by leadership at the national or prefectural level.

As AGB Nippon noted a month ago, “The continuing failure by the national government to take public responsibility for its own policies has shifted the public relations burden to local governments and the big business community, which have been left largely to their own devices to defend their IR initiatives.”

The Abe government had forced passage of the IR Implementation Act, but had never made a serious attempt to persuade the public to support the policy, running from the issue whenever an election approached.

Also, Hokkaido never had a firmly pro-IR governor to strongly make the public case like Ichiro Matsui of Osaka or Yoshinobu Nisaka of Wakayama. Each of these men openly promoted their IR initiatives, even when election time came. They treated the matter as something to be proud of, rather than something to be embarrassed about.

In Hokkaido’s case, the previous Governor Harumi Takahashi probably felt personally supportive of Tomakomai’s IR initiative for a long time, but she was unwilling to openly declare her support until this April, her last days in office.

The April 7 Hokkaido gubernatorial election pitted Tomohiro Ishikawa, who was unequivocal in his position that no IR should be built in the prefecture, against the ultimate winner, Naomichi Suzuki, who refused to clarify his IR stance one way or the other, except to say that he would study it carefully.

Unlike, for example, Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, who probably always advocated IR development throughout her 2 1/2 years of publicly claiming to be a “blank slate,” it now seems that Suzuki was, in fact, quite sincere when he said he hadn’t made up his mind.

Had Hokkaido conservatives united in support of the Tomakomai IR bid, it seems likely that Governor Suzuki would have gone along with it, providing the backing of the prefectural government.

What he wasn’t willing to do, however, was to spend his own political capital, and alienate sections of his support base, on behalf of a cause for which he is not personally committed. Despite his youth, Naomichi Suzuki is a very careful and cautious politician.

Characteristically, Governor Suzuki did leave open the possibility that Tomakomai might seek an IR at some future occasion if the number of licenses is expanded beyond the current three. This could potentially occur in 2028.

If he is still governor at that point, it would behoove IR supporters to convince the public of Hokkaido on their own, and then they will likely find that Suzuki has become amenable. (AGB Nippon)