A Conversation with Nagasaki Vice-Governor Ken Hirata

AGB Nippon recently sat down for an exclusive interview with Nagasaki Vice-Governor Ken Hirata, who gave us the low-down on one of the best prepared local government IR candidacies, touching on a variety of issues of national significance.

Hirata himself has had a long career within the national government bureaucracy, previously specializing in roads and construction for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. Now he is bringing his talents and experience to Nagasaki’s campaign to win one of the three available IR licenses.

Hirata points out several assets that Nagasaki possesses, in spite of its relatively small local market.

First, Nagasaki may be attractive to the central government because it is well-poised to fulfill the role of attracting foreign tourists from Asia, which is at the very top of the various goals outlined for the legalization of casino gambling in the first place.

Also, political and popular support for the IR is stronger in Nagasaki than in any other candidate location. This contention is not really disputable. The Nagasaki Prefectural Government and the municipal government of Sasebo city have been working in public for years on this project, and newspaper polls in the area provided the very first results in Japan showing a plurality of local residents in favor of an IR bid. Nagasaki stands as virtually unique in this respect, with only Osaka coming anywhere close in terms of gaining local consent.

Additionally, the very recent news that Kitakyushu city will not be joining the IR race breathes new life into the prefecture’s campaign to truly make the IR bid an “All Kyushu” effort.

That said, not all has been smooth sailing for Nagasaki’s “sea and islands” IR bid.

One challenge is that the Huis Ten Bosch theme park will not be a proactive partner in the IR project, as had seemed likely in earlier years. H.I.S. founder Hideo Sawada has proven lukewarm toward the initiative, indicating on several occasions his uncertainty that the large investment amounts needed for IR construction will be easily recoverable in future years. He is unwilling to bet on this IR’s success.

Nevertheless, Sawada has also recognized the enthusiasm of the local government for the initiative and he will not stand in the way of other investors who want to step forward. He has agreed to sell 30 hectares of land in the event the prefecture’s licensing bid is successful, which would make Huis Ten Bosch and the IR neighbors.

But what would be the precise relationship between the theme park company and the IR? Vice-Governor Hirata isn’t sure, but he believes that on a practical level there would be significant cooperation between the two entities. Also, he notes that one of the primary roles of a Japanese IR is to drive local tourism, which would of course include driving tourism to the theme park right next door.

Perhaps the most newsworthy point that Hirata made in this interview was his suggestion that while only three IR operator consortiums participated in the recent RFC, that we shouldn’t be too surprised if additional operators step in at the final RFP stage. There’s been no requirement that IR operators participate in the earlier stages, and the door is still wide open for new contenders.

Because of the time that will be needed to flesh out the joint bid, the IR operator will be selected by Nagasaki Prefecture around the autumn of this year, presuming no timeline changes in national-level policies.

Hirata acknowledges that the 500 Dot Com bribery scandal has done no favors for local governments like Nagasaki, increasing public concerns about IR development. The scandal has made the task of explaining the local initiative to local residents all the more challenging and necessary.

Uncertainty about the future direction of national policy is also a concern. Should the national IR licensing timeline be delayed by the corruption scandal or other factors, this would have a major impact on local governments as well, especially in terms of their own planning for infrastructure development.

Indeed, among the more interesting local infrastructure projects is the plan to build a high-speed boat service between Nagasaki Airport, which sits on a manmade island within Omura Bay, and the Huis Ten Bosch area, which adjoins the same waterway. Hirata indicated that should the IR bid go forward, it is even possible that the IR operator consortium themselves might manage this service, though this is by no means a requirement.

In the coming months, Nagasaki Prefecture will be launching its RFP process and establishing a third-party committee to make the selection of its IR operator partner. Hirata is confident that the national government will recognize a good plan when they see it, and that his small western prefecture has quite a good shot at being among the winners. (AGB Nippon)