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Hard Rock joins race for Japan Casino, plans 'major investment'

[TOKYO] Hard Rock Cafe International Inc is prepared to make a "major investment" in Japan as lawmakers propose to renew the debate on legalising casinos in the country.

The US cafe and casino chain is looking for partners to jointly bid for a license in anticipation that the legislature will approve gaming resorts, chief executive officer Hamish Dodds said.

"We can either play a lead role or a partnership role," Mr Dodds said in an interview in Tokyo.

"We really hope that we can collaborate with Japanese partners and institutions."

Hard Rock joins operators including Las Vegas Sands Corp and MGM Resorts International in looking to start projects in Japan as legislators propose to reintroduce a bill that would lead to legalising casinos, which the country has been considering on-and-off for at least a decade.

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The privately-held company, which is expanding in China with rock'n'roll music-themed hotels and restaurants, said it gets more than half of its US$4.5 billion revenue from its gaming business.

"The Japanese gaming market is to be the holy grail," said Aaron Fischer, an analyst at CLSA Ltd, said by phone.

He expects casino revenue there could be from US$10 billion to US$40 billion, with the potential to be "bigger than Macau," depending on the number of integrated resorts. Macau's casino industry generated about US$30 billion last year.

The proposal has now regained momentum, said Mr Dodds. A record tourism boom to Japan is helping fuel renewed interest in casinos. There could also be significant domestic demand, he said.

Japan's ubiquitous pachinko parlors - pinball-like betting games that exist in a legal grey area - are popular attractions.

Japan last considered an Integrated Resorts Promotion Bill in April 2015, though the legislature failed to act on it amid opposition from legislators concerned about the prospect of increasing gambling addiction. The parliament's lower house may debate casino legislation Nov 9, the Nikkei news agency reported.

Last week, executives of the largest global operators, including MGM Resorts, Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts Ltd gathered in Tokyo at an integrated resorts and gaming conference to pitch local companies and politicians on their plans should casinos get the green light. Hard Rock was among the attendees.

"The feeling we get is that this is more likely to happen now," said Mr Dodds, who expects the Japanese casino market to be more than US$10 billion. "There's more noise, there's greater discussions in the commercial sector about how and when this will be realised."


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