When I first started covering the gaming industry in the early 1990s, one of the first big overseas gaming stories I researched was the rumor that Japan was considering casino legalization. Of course, the gaming marketplace was all abuzz over this—at that time, Japanese businessmen comprised a large portion of the industry’s whale-designated clientele, and it was thought a Japan-based casino would be a magnet for these high-rollers. The major casino developers during this time period were reportedly lining up for a chance to bid for a Japanese casino license, pitching large-scale products in urban areas throughout the country.
But nothing ever came from all this excitement and effort. In news that was to become all too familiar over the next two decades, casino enabling legislation never made it out of Japan’s Diet, where conservative elements within the government regularly quashed most gaming expansion plans. Over the intervening years, news would leak that pro-casino Japanese politicians where once again submitting gaming legislation and the international casino industry would get excited by the prospect, only to have its hopes dashed when another legislative session ended without any casino movement.
Perhaps this is why I approached the current round of Japanese casino legalization activity with trepidation and caution, despite the fact analysts and regional experts both inside and outside of gaming were saying this time it was the real deal; spurred by the government’s need for funds to support its ongoing tsunami recovery efforts and to help build the infrastructure needed for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Indeed, the latest round of casino legalization legislation, introduced to the Diet late last year, reportedly has bipartisan support, and is strongly backed by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. At the time I’m writing this, the Diet is reportedly considering the legislation, which could become law by the end of January 2014. If this happens, observers believe casino licenses could be awarded by 2016 with an eye toward having the facilities up and running by 2019.
The details of this casino enabling legislation are somewhat unclear at the moment. It has been reported that it calls for Singapore-style integrated casino resort development with two types of licenses—large-scale convention and tourist resort developments for the bigger cities, and smaller-sized casino development for rural areas. Areas that have been mentioned as potential sites for these gaming properties include Tokyo, Osaka, Atami, Naruto, Hokkaido, Sapporo and Okinawa.
So maybe Japan’s casino development is for real this time. The gaming industry apparently thinks it is. The companies that have already tossed their hats into the Japan casino ring include heavy hitters such as Las Vegas Sands, Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts International, Melco Crown Entertainment, Galaxy Entertainment and Genting, just to name a few. Hell, the American Gaming Association and Clarion Events, the producers of the ICE show in London, have already announced they will launch casino industry trade shows in Japan over the next year, pending passage of the gaming legislation.
The reason for all this gaming industry interest in Japan: simple, just follow the money. Experts predict casinos in Japan could eventually generate $10 billion to $15 billion in yearly gaming revenue, second only to Macau, which became a $45 billion plus gaming market in 2013.
And therein lies the rub…Japan is coming to the casino party a bit late. Macau is already established as the region’s all-ruling gaming hub, with strong regional gaming pods already established in Singapore, Vietnam and many other Asian nations that could have been primary feeder markets for Japan’s casinos. As a result, the Japan casino resort developments will truly have to be spectacular to entice Asian tourists out of set gaming patterns; and it is unlikely the nation will ever have the gaming gravitas of Macau.
Still, a $15 billion casino market is nothing to sneeze at, and truly shows that it is better to be late to the game than to never play.