Will Japan Legalize Sports Betting?
Japan has some of the most stringent gambling laws. Besides the iconic Japanese pachinko which is played in pachinko halls, there is currently no casino gaming, Thunderbolt online casino betting or any other type of legal wagering infrastructure in Japan.
Just a few years ago, the Japanese parliament decided to allow casino operators to open multi-million dollar casino-resorts in three separate areas in Japan but the restrictions were so tight and the demands of the locals were so tough that it’s now questionable as to whether all of the planned resorts will even be built.
Now, members of the government including the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry are pushing a new proposal that would lift restrictions on sports betting in Japan. The Ministry has already drafted the proposal which, it says, would benefit the country by boosting the sports industry and bringing in revenues from taxes on the wagering activities.
Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda said that he envisions any legislation coming through slowly. It is already facing stiff opposition amid concerns that it would lead to gambling addiction and match-fixing.
Observers caution that the time to get excited about sports betting in Japan hasn’t come yet. Part of the failure to get the resort casino industry off the ground stems from a decided lack of support for gambling among the general population. Japanese lawmakers, despite their eagerness to harness some of the revenue from sports betting, are conscious of that public opinion.
The idea was initially floated in 2015 and it didn’t go far but the Ministry and the Japanese Sports Agency are set to reconvene the 2015 Sports Development Council so that discussions on lifting restrictions on sports betting can start again.
According to Hagiuda, who supports the efforts, “We’ll resume discussions, taking into account changes in the structure of the global sports industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic and digitalization, but when to start the discussions and what to discuss is not yet decided.”
Gambling in Japan
Japan has legalized horse racing and track cycling betting. Sports lotteries are currently permitted. Now that most of Europe, plus most American states, allow sports betting, it’s getting harder for the government to ignore the call for sports betting as well as the substantial revenues that sports betting brings to the government coffers.
Currently, Japan is the only Group of Seven nations that bans sports betting but that doesn’t mean that Japanese citizens don’t have access to placing sports bets – they are able to make sports bets at online sportsbook which they can easily access online.
Seeing citizens place bets at offshore sites is frustrating to many government officials who note the massive outflow of wealth. Some estimates indicate that revenues from foreign gambling are siphoning about ¥5 trillion-¥6 trillion annually from the Japanese economy.
Many Japanese legislators may be taking their cues from overseas where sportsbooks take bets on a wide variety of events including in-play actions. For instance, in-play bets can include bets on whether a certain player will score a basket or a goal in the next ten minutes and that bet can be placed at any time during the game.
Opponents of sports betting say that in-play betting is particularly dangerous in relation to match-fixing and an increase in gambling addiction. Proponents of sports betting, however, don’t think that that threat should supersede the potential for revenue that would be generated from gambling. Such revenue could be used to promote local sports, to cover the costs of club activities at public schools and fund other public service projects in the country.
Commissioner Koji Murofushi of the reconvened Sports Agency has already received a proposal on measures that would shift the operating bodies of extracurricular club activities to private clubs and other entities from the current plan of having them operated by the schools.
“Sports betting is still a grey area in Japan, with no concrete design yet in place,” Murofushi said. “The Sports Agency does not intend to use [revenue from] sports betting to cover the costs of the proposed reforms” of the outsourcing of school club activities.
Motohiro Ohashi of the Nagoya Zokei University of Art and Design said is one of the outspoken opponents of the plan. He doesn’t see any benefit to having children’s club activities used as the basis to promote legalized sports betting. ”It’s outrageous,” he said. “Central and local governments should properly allocate public funds if the sports activities are necessary for the education and healthy development of children.”
There have also been objections raised in the world of professional sports. In Japan, pro baseball has become synonymous with the fight against organized crime associated with match-fixing. The baseball world in Japan has always distanced itself from the Toto sports lottery and has been a vocal opponent of sports betting for years. The pro baseball teams in Japan were asked to reconsider the matter but after discussions, they decided to continue their opposition.
Sumo wrestlers are similarly opposed. The head of the Japan Sumo Association’s crisis management committee, Toshio Takano, said, “If we’re talking about local support to ease the burden on teachers who have to work extra hours [on extracurricular club activities], I think there are other ways to secure financial resources without relying on betting.”
Supporters of sports betting in Japan have never felt that they are closer to their goal but legislators are watching the landscape closely. Last year sitting Yokohama mayor Fumiko Hayashi lost his bid for re-election to Takeharu Yamanaka after a campaign that was run mainly on the issue of whether or not to have Yokohama host a new Integrated Resort-Casino. Hayashi was a strong proponent of having the IR built in Yokohama but his constituents overwhelmingly disagreed.