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Tokyo casinos take a gamble

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The Shimbashi area of Tokyo has many casinos operating in the open
TOKYO (TR) – On a typical weekday night, the streets on the west side of Tokyo’s Shimbashi Station are alive with activity: salesmen hocking necklaces and bracelets compete for sidewalk space with lottery ticket booths; taxis line up for fares; and salarymen slowly filter into the hostess and snack clubs off the main streets.

Mixed in are middle-aged men slowing pacing the sidewalks while wearing advertising sandwich boards decorated with playing cards or roulette wheels. Some offer gambling action for as little as 10 yen. Small maps give directions to each “game kingdom.”

Today, legal gambling in Japan is limited to horse, motorboat, bicycle, and motorcycle racing. A number of other activities, such as the lottery, pachinko, and mahjong, are classified as “amusements” and are legal. A casino’s existence then can only be the result of one thing, says Reikichi Sumiya, an organized crime expert and journalist. “Wherever there’s gambling in Japan, there’s the yakuza,” he says.

In addition to holding a dubious legal standing, the casinos generally hold a business model that is under continual strain — a condition that in recent years encapsulates the status of Japan’s legalized gambling industry as a whole.

The casinos are loosely based on the same exchange principal as pachinko parlors. Casino chips purchased for the gambling action can be swapped back to cash at a shop off the premises.

These parlors are usually found in the same gaudy buildings that accommodate hostess clubs and massage parlors, and occupy about the same space as a bar or restaurant. Doormen regulate customers by sticking to a strict “members only” policy that usually prohibits foreigners.

Most casinos are losing money, says Sumiya. Since the average patron succumbs to the odds, he winds up piling up huge debts. A lot of times he accepts loans to keep playing. But because he continues to lose, repayment is not possible. Add to this the threat of being closed down by the police and a grim situation develops. Sumiya sums up the business by saying, “The risk is big.”

One frequent customer, Hideki Yamamoto (not his real name), says the threat of being busted is a constant. “The police will go out and bust a different place once a week,” he says. “So each casino probably will have to close down after one or two years. Then they will find a new location.”

Tokyo’s Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Roppongi areas have the highest concentration of these establishments. Yamamoto says that the police have gotten more strict with some operators having moved to Shimbashi where the police are not as prepared to deal with them.

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Casino Dior in Shimbashi
Yamamoto explains that to prevent from receiving an unfriendly visit from the police, the yakuza use a communication system run through a network of scouts. Young apprentice yakuza with mobile phones watch the moves of the officers at Atago Police Station – the station responsible for Shimbashi. Yamamoto says, “If the owner of the casino is given information that the police are on the move, then the casino might close for a while.”

As a result, Shimbashi’s streets may one month be filled with sandwich boards promoting blackjack, baccarat, and roulette at such establishments as Millennium, Gold Coast, and Paradise. However, the next month the action might just be limited to Dior.

Overall, the gambling industry in Japan is in decline. Nearly half of all racing operators lost money in fiscal 2000. Declining interest and a staggering economy are to blame. This has become serious in that municipal governments have traditionally relied on profits from these operations as part of their budgets. To fix these shortfalls, legalized casinos are being proposed in Japan.

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has made the most noise on the legalized casino front by announcing his intentions of constructing one or more casinos in hotels on Tokyo’s waterfront in Odaiba. Governors from Osaka, Hiroshima, and Miyazaki are also in favor of considering casinos for their jurisdictions.

The hope is that a series of trendy, fashionable, and exciting Las Vegas-style casinos marketed to young people would spur fresh interest in gambling and replenish government coffers.

A preliminary estimate from the Japan Casino Academy has indicated that between 50 billion and 120 billion yen in tax revenue would be generated per year if six casinos were to open in Odaiba.

But will it happen? Ishihara would first have to overturn Japan’s law prohibiting gambling. Insiders seem confident that his popularity and political clout will be enough to get the measure approved.

Sumiya, however, warns ominously, “In the Edo Period, a lot of people lost their homes and sold their daughters into prostitution because of gambling losses. That’s why it was banned in the first place.”

Note: This article originally appeared in February 2002 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.