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Japan's casino school enrolment increases in anticipation of IRs
AT a Tokyo casino school, Takuto Saito settled behind a green table and reached for the roulette wheel, addressing a group of imaginary punters: "Spin up. Place your bets."
The 24-year-old croupier-in-training has never set foot in a casino, but he is gambling that new laws opening up the sector will soon create plenty of jobs for croupiers in Japan.
Opening his palms to fake surveillance cameras on the roof to show there was nothing up his sleeves, Mr Saito said he enjoyed watching how players make their moves and the atmosphere around gambling tables.
Owner Masayoshi Oiwane said interest had skyrocketed in his casino school, where would-be croupiers learn to deal baccarat games, spin the roulette wheel and supervise betting on the green baize tables.
"Our enrolment has doubled from last year," he said. "We are seeing an unprecedented level of momentum."
Japan was long the only developed nation that banned casinos, but passed legislation in 2016 paving the way to make the industry legal.
On Tuesday, the Lower House of Parliament passed a Bill allowing the construction of three integrated resort facilities combining casinos, convention centres, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues.
Japan is often viewed as the Holy Grail of gaming in Asia due to a wealthy population, its proximity to China and appetite for other forms of legal gambling, including horse racing and pachinko.
Economists estimate the casino industry could bring in takings of 2 trillion yen (S$25 billion) to 3.7 trillion yen a year, and national and regional governments are set for a jackpot of a combined 30 per cent tax on gaming revenues.
Japan's government hopes they will become tourist draws that will be a shot in the arm for a stagnant economy, and attract business travellers and new tourists. It has brushed aside opposition from activists, including those concerned about Japan's already well-documented problem with gambling addiction.
Toru Mihara, an expert on the casino sector at Osaka University of Commerce, said just one single IR could create tens of thousands of jobs and have a "great impact on the local economy".
"Tourists will come to energise various regions", he told AFP, urging Japan to pursue conference and exhibition business as well. "This can grow as a new and major industry."
The legislation, expected to pass the Upper House later this month, kicks off a process that will see local regions bid for the right to host one of three IR facilities.
Although no timeline and criteria have yet been set for the process, municipalities have already started contacting possible investors. Among those who have expressed interest are Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts, which have each suggested a possible US$10 billion investment in a proposed project in Osaka.
Some foreign casino operators have hired Japanese workers to work at their overseas locations, hoping to have local staff ready to go when venues finally open in five to six years.
But Japan already has a significant gambling problem, with a 2017 government survey showing an estimated 3.2 million people are addicted. Many are hooked on the pinball-like "pachinko" or on "pachislo" slot machines, which together annually generate 21.6 trillion yen in revenue.
Some 10,000 parlours dot the nation, many readily accessible near train stations.
Japan also has a five-trillion-yen market for government-controlled races of horses, motorcycles, boats and bicycles, along with football betting and a lottery.
Both proponents and critics of casinos say the nation has long neglected its gambling problem, and Noriko Tanaka, who heads a group working with gambling addicts, said the casino legislation will only make things worse.
The laws make it easy for gamblers to take out credit lines to play at casinos and lack concrete financial commitments to tackling addiction, she told AFP.
The Bill also fails to reserve a seat on casino commissions for gambling addiction specialists, a clause activists had argued for. To deter addiction, lawmakers have agreed to impose a 6,000 yen entry fee on local residents and limit their visits to 10 times a month.
But Ms Tanaka said this is not enough. "If you are promoting casinos, you also have to face the existing problem of gambling addiction. Japan needs to thoroughly revamp its measures against gambling addiction."
But Mr Saito said he thought local opposition to the industry would ease when casinos finally start opening their doors. "I think Japanese people hold excessively negative views of gambling," he said. "I am quite optimistic about this." AFP