Photo/IllutrationYokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi announces the city's plan to campaign to attract a casino-based resort on Aug. 22. (Keisuke Yoshino)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Yokohama on Aug. 22 officially declared itself a player to land one of the three casino-based resort locations that the central government has proposed, pitching a prime bayfront location.

“I have developed a strong sense of crisis regarding the future of Yokohama,” Mayor Fumiko Hayashi said at a regularly scheduled news conference, where she announced the city’s decision to seek hosting a so-called “integrated resort” (IR).

Hayashi listed some of the problems that Yokohama is facing: a population decline after peaking in 2019; a strain in the city's financial condition; a lack of overnight stays by visitors; and the low amount spent per visitor.

An integrated resort that will come with an international conference hall, hotel and casino, among other attractions, is a solution to these problems, the mayor said.

With Yokohama being the most populated incorporated city and the first municipality in the Tokyo metropolitan area to enter the bidding, the announcement was greeted enthusiastically by chamber officials and the casino industry, and with anxiety from rival municipalities.

It also ignited strong opposition and protests from residents concerned of the negative impact that a casino could bring, such as gambling addiction and increased crime.

However, Hayashi emphasized that an IR offers many advantages. Upon its completion, a casino-based resort would have an economic ripple effect of about 1 trillion yen ($9.3 billion), and the city would enjoy an increase in tax revenues estimated at about 100 billion yen annually, she said.

The candidate site will be Yokohama Port’s Yamashita Wharf, which covers 47 hectares of land and is convenient from central Tokyo and Haneda Airport.

If selected, the city aims for the opening of the IR in the latter half of the 2020s.

The city government will submit an IR-related supplementary budget plan of 260 million yen to a regular session of the city assembly that will start from Sept. 2.

The budget will cover research and analysis by experts and a survey on actual cases of gambling addiction.

BACKLASH AND PROTEST

Hayashi’s formal announcement instantly spurred a political backlash and public protest, due to her previous “undecided” stance on the issue.

“(The mayor’s decision) is nothing less than a deceptive attack,” said Tomoko Abe, a Lower House member who heads the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan’s Kanagawa prefectural chapter.

“If an IR is as wonderful as she says, then she should seek the people’s will in an election,” Abe said. “Instead, she’s trying to do it sneakily. I bet it’s because she’s conscious of having done it wrong.”

Hayashi had previously supported inviting an IR to Yokohama. In 2014, during her second mayoral term, Hayashi launched a project to consider a plan of seeking an IR to locate in Yokohama.

“We need more facilities that will have an impact in Yokohama,” she said at the time.

However, as the mayoral election approached in 2017, in which her rival candidates opposed an IR in Yokohama, Hayashi changed her position to one of noncommittal.

But since the law to set up IRs passed the Diet in July 2018, Hayashi has laid the groundwork for a bid by her city, by collecting proposals for an IR from private companies and hosting explanatory meetings for residents.

Asked by reporters why she changed her previous undecided stance, Hayashi said, “I didn’t mean that I would never invite an IR.”

“I think that she never abandoned her desire to (bring in an IR),” one veteran city assembly member of the Liberal Democratic Party said in an analysis. “She just toned it down because there was a mayoral election.”

The Yokohama Chamber of Commerce and Industry has urged the city to enter the race to land one of the three IR locations.

“We will actively support (the city) and work together cooperatively to realize the invitation of an IR,” the chamber said in a statement issued after the mayor’s announcement.

Not everyone was happy with the news.

A citizen’s group that opposes a casino-based resort in Yokohama held a news conference on the day and announced that it will discuss a plan to recall the mayor.

Inside the city hall, dozens of residents and assembly members who are not affiliated with a party got into scuffles with security guards and city employees.

They wrestled in an attempt to directly hand a petition signed by residents opposing an IR and position documents to the mayor.

Kazumi Kobayashi, a vice mayor of Yokohama, appeared and accepted them. But the protest continued for about two hours.

BYE-BYE OSAKA, HELLO YOKOHAMA

Yokohama’s decision also immediately sparked positive reactions and actions from companies hoping to set up a casino-based resort in Yokohama.

Las Vegas Sands Corp., the U.S.-based largest developer and operator of luxury IRs, whose properties include Marina Bay Sands in Singapore and The Venetian Las Vegas, stated, “We will concentrate our efforts on development opportunities in Tokyo and Yokohama.”

The central government plans to permit establishment of IRs for up to three locations. So far, Osaka Prefecture and Osaka have jointly launched a campaign in hopes of landing one of the slots, along with Wakayama and Nagasaki prefectures. Several other local governments have expressed an interest and are “considering” entering the race.

Yokohama’s entry stirs up the race and shakes up the front-runner, as the Las Vegas Sands immediately announced its withdrawal from the selection process to operate an IR in Osaka Prefecture and Osaka.

Melco Resorts and Entertainment Ltd., a Hong Kong-based developer and operator of casino resorts in Asia, was also quick to announce that it will open an office in Yokohama’s Minato Mirai district close to Yamashita Wharf.

“Yokohama is ideal as a potential location for a large-scale development that targets premium visitors from abroad,” the company said.

Tokyo and Chiba Prefecture are also considering entering the IR bidding race.

“It’s not on a first-come-first-served basis,” a Tokyo metropolitan government official said after learning of Yokohama’s announcement. “We will keep doing what we can do,” the official added.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who has taken a cautious approach to the issue, told reporters, “There is no change whatsoever in the Tokyo metropolitan government’s stance.”

Chiba Mayor Toshihito Kumagai said at a news conference, “We will consider each step of the procedure and judge comprehensively whether or not we should invite an IR.”

(This article was written by Hiroyuki Takei, Kanoko Tsuchiya, Keisuke Yoshino, Takefumi Ishihara, Narumi Ota and Shoko Terasaki.)