Would Japan’s IR Policy Survive the Fall of Shinzo Abe?

Since the passage of the IR Implementation Act in July 2018, the question of whether or not the nation would really move forward with its IR development policy seemed to be definitely settled in the affirmative. However, a series of rather unlikely events in recent months may have reopened the possibility—even if a somewhat remote one—that Japan’s entire pro-IR policy could yet entirely collapse.

The first of these major blows, of course, was the 500 Dot Com bribery scandal, which has had a number of serious implications.

First, the scandal discredited some of the most enthusiastic pro-IR politicians, such as former Cabinet Office minister Tsukasa Akimoto and former Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya. Other conservative politicians who seem a little too eager to embrace IR development now risk creating suspicions that they too are mainly interested in lining their own pockets or those of their political campaigns.

Second, it has caused the central government to delay publication of its basic plan, leaving local governments guessing about the specific national policies right at the time they are supposed to be moving forward with their RFP processes and selecting their IR operator partners.

Third, it caused local governments that had been wavering about whether or not to join the IR race to decide that the political risks were simply too high. It currently appears that only Yokohama, Osaka, Wakayama, and Nagasaki—all of which had been preparing for years—are willing to move forward with licensing bids.

Fourth, it unlined very real questions about whether or not the scandal-ridden and increasingly corrupt Shinzo Abe administration can really be trusted to responsibly manage a multi-billion dollar new industry that is flush with cash. While Japanese society as a whole is generally regarded as honest and public-spirited, the deepest rot might be found right at the top, with a regime that has become all too comfortable with lying to the parliament, shredding documents, turning a blind eye to payoffs, silencing democratic watchdogs, and politicizing the prosecutors office.

Finally, the 500 Dot Com bribery scandal intensified public opposition to IR development. Rather than witnessing the gradual “education” of the Japanese public that IRs do not equal sleazy gambling parlors, and are instead clean fun for the whole family, the deeply-ingrained negative image that the industry is a magnet for crime and iniquity has been reinforced.

But the casino bribery scandal has been followed by an even more unlikely development—the mishandling of the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis, and specifically the Diamond Princess cruise ship affair.

The corruption and dishonesty of the Abe government first became clear in 2017 with the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen scandals. But even at the lowest point for the prime minister, a large majority of the business community—especially the big business community—made it clear that Shinzo Abe still had their strong support. Their notion appeared to be that corruption didn’t really bother big business so long as the government remained competent and able to carry out its pro-business policies.

The Covid-19 crisis, however, has struck right at the heart of what remains of the Abe government’s remaining legitimacy—its reputation for competence in policy execution.

The Abe regime increasingly looks like it has become careless, internally divided, and bereft of any new ideas. It would not be shocking if the government collapses this year. But even if it survives the year 2020, it seems to be crippled and unlikely to recover anything near its former strength.

But if the Abe government does indeed fall this year, would its IR development policy fall with it? Probably not, but the prospect can no longer be said to be entirely off the table.

The main advantage that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe still has is the same advantage he has always had (and the same advantage that the pro-IR political forces have always had), which is the utter inability of the opposition parties to pose a serious threat to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Even when public confidence in the government plunges, there’s no improvement in the bottom basement support rates of the opposition.

The point is that the Shinzo Abe government would certainly be replaced by another Liberal Democratic Party regime.

That’s basically good news for the continuation of the current policies, but there’s still no guarantee. Witness, for example, what happened in Hokkaido: The election of the conservative Governor Naomichi Suzuki kept the local IR development hopes alive, but only for a while.

The nightmare scenario for the gaming industry—which is no longer out of the question—is that an Abe successor would be a conservative with no strong personal ideological objections to IR development, but also unwilling to spend his or her political capital to advance a policy that is so manifestly unpopular with the general public.

Until the central government actually issues the three IR licenses to local governments, there is scope for a stunning policy reversal. (AGB Nippon)