Japanese Public Left Behind in IR Race

The race to gain one of the three available IR licenses is advancing into the decisive stage, with Japanese local governments and international IR operators eagerly lining up for approval. However, the Japanese general public remains broadly on the sidelines, not waiting in anticipation, but rather sullenly watching developments they don’t approve of.

The IR question has been prominent within the national debate for about five years now, and the public view has hardly changed in that time. Their answer has consistently been no, no, no—usually by about a 2-to-1 margin.

More detailed polling suggests that there is something of both a gender gap and an age gap. Women tend to be more opposed to the legalization of casino gambling than men, and the older generations more opposed than the young.

In a handful of local areas, the picture may be different. In both Nagasaki and Osaka some polls have indicated a greater degree of tolerance from those local residents who anticipate regional economic benefits from the construction of IRs. At the national level, the needle appears to have hardly moved.

Although the political world has been clearly divided into pro-IR conservatives and anti-casino liberals, the mainstream media has been united in its distaste for the government’s IR legislation, with almost every major newspaper having editorialized against it, and television programs barely disguising their doubts about it.

Even at this stage, it remains the case that the Abe government’s forced passage of its IR legislation, based upon its strong parliamentary majorities, was not accompanied by any serious effort to persuade the public to its point of view. Indeed, whenever a major national election approaches, ruling party strategists attempt to bury or downplay IR construction rather than defend it, treating it as a political embarrassment rather than a point of pride that they are pleased to openly advocate.

This 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.

It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the reoccurring rallying cries of the anti-casino movements is for local referendums on IR developments, rather than simply doing what the local governor or mayor bids.

Some pro-IR voices argue persistently that the newspaper polls are wrong, biased, and/or employ inaccurate sampling methods. They contend that, in fact, the Japanese public is not opposed to IR development. More credibly, there are many who argue that if only the Japanese public understood what an IR really is—much more than a hive of gambling and immoral behavior—then they would actually support IR development.

On the other hand, we’ve yet to hear any of these pro-IR voices, either Japanese or foreign, who feel confident enough in such opinions that they would support local referendums, respecting the democratic will and helping to seal local community buy-in.

Most local governments directly involved in IR bids have begun holding citizen explanation meetings and the like, launching their own efforts to change public opinion. These programs have not yet been held in the neighboring communities, which will certainly be affected by IR development but lie on the other side of municipal boundaries.

For their part, some IR operators have opened local offices and interacted with local business communities, but they are understandably unwilling to spend a vast amount of time and effort until they have been selected as the IR development partners.

The company that made the strongest effort to engage general public concerns about gambling addiction, Caesars Entertainment, is now out of the Japan IR race.

As it stands now, getting the Japanese public on board has largely been left to a later stage, when the IRs are actually under construction.