Photo/Illutration Yamashita Pier, front, where an integral resort project including a casino facility is planned, in Yokohama’s Naka Ward (Kazuyoshi Sako)

YOKOHAMA--Whereas a life-size Gundam statue currently rules over Yamashita Pier here, the Aug. 22 Yokohama mayoral election is raising the stakes for the future look of the waterfront area. 

In the hotly contested race, the building of an "integrated resort" IR featuring a casino is the key election issue. 

Only two of the eight candidates, including incumbent Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, 75, support moving forward with the project, which would dramatically alter the port. 

Among the notable opponents are Hachiro Okonogi, 56, a candidate backed by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and Takeharu Yamanaka, 48, who is supported by the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

Under the city’s proposal, a casino-based resort will be built in Yamashita Pier.

The pier sits right next to popular Yamashita Park, where visitors stroll while enjoying a view of the Hikawa Maru ocean liner, Yokohama Bay Bridge and high-rise buildings such as the futuristic Minato Mirai 21.

The park is close to Yokohama Chinatown and the Motomachi shopping district.

A 25-year-old man who was walking through the park said, “This is my first time to come here. It is a beautiful park.”

He said he did not know that the park is a potential site for a casino and resort complex.

“From the standpoint of the view of the landscape, I don’t know what to think,” the man said.

The 47-hectare pier was built in 1963. It served as a major cargo pier at Yokohama Port and played a vital role as a logistics hub to support Japan’s period of rapid growth.

But as cargo ships became more massive, a pier that could accommodate a mammoth cargo ship was built outside the port and it has become the logistics hub.

Based on such a history, Yokohama has enjoyed an image of a sophisticated port town. It has been ranked high in a survey of “the best cities to live.”

Yokohama has a population of more than 3.78 million, the largest among municipalities in Japan.

But the population is aging. The city expects to see lower resident tax revenues in the future.

Seeking a way to boost the economy, the city government in 2019 announced a plan to host an IR at the pier.

Under the plan, the city will ask an IR operator to run a large-scale international convention center, an exhibition hall, accommodation facilities with more than 3,000 rooms including at least a five-star hotel, a theater, a museum and a shopping mall.

The entire complex is expected to be built and operated as one and financed by revenues from a casino operator. 

The city government has budgeted about 1 billion yen ($9.15 million) as an expenditure to attract an operator for the project.

Gambling is banned by Criminal Law in Japan. However, at the proposed casino facility, it will be allowed as an exception.

The central government expects to select up to three locations for such casino resorts after May next year and hopes to see them open in the late 2020s. In addition to Yokohama, Osaka city and prefectural governments as well as Wakayama and Nagasaki prefectural governments have launched bids to host a casino resort.

Local businesses in Yokohama have a sense of anticipation and support for the project.

Nobumasa Takahashi, 62, who heads the Yokohama Chinatown Development Association, said, “I want the IR to boost the attractiveness of Yokohama.”

Many visitors take a day trip to Yokohama but stay in Tokyo or other tourist destinations in Kanagawa Prefectures such as Hakone.

“With an IR, tourists will stay in Yokohama and go out to surrounding areas and provide a financial benefit,” Takahashi said.

The local economy has been damaged by the novel coronavirus pandemic, he said.

“But by the time an IR is built here, the pandemic will be over and foreign visitors will return. I want them to experience the goodness of Yokohama and become a repeater.”

However, there is a groundswell of opposition to the project.

In August last year, residents and others who oppose the project held a rally at Yamashita Park and launched a petition for a public referendum for residents to express their support or opposition.

The group collected more than 190,000 signatures by December 2020, which were submitted to the city.

But the city assembly voted the referendum request down. So, all eyes are now on the mayoral election, which could hold the cards for the future of the IR at Yamashita Pier.

A 71-year-old man who lives in the city’s Kohoku Ward and worked as a port laborer for about 20 years said the pier is “a sacred place” for those who worked in the port industry.

“There used to be many ships around here,” he said, looking out over the pier.

“But they moved to other places, one after another. The bustle has gone, and it feels lonely,” he said.