Photo/Illutration A public hearing was held in Osaka's Chuo Ward on Jan. 29 over plans by the Osaka prefectural and municipal governments to develop a casino-centered integrated resort. (Ryuhei Tsutsui)

Osaka’s plan to develop a casino-centered integrated resort in a man-made island in Osaka Bay triggered concerns among residents that they may end up shouldering a heavy financial burden for a project that favors specific businesses. Osaka prefectural and municipal authorities need to respond to these anxieties in a straightforward manner.

Four public hearings have been held to date to give people an opportunity to voice their opinions and quiz officials about the project.

Many of those who attended the hearings were worried the planned resort would fuel gambling addiction and related problems like debt traps and family breakdowns. Asahi Shimbun editorials have repeatedly warned that casino resort projects entail such risks. Residents also voiced fears about the gigantic development project getting started while there is no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another issue raised was a plan to use 79 billion yen ($686 million) in public funds to support the project.

The IR would be situated in Yumeshima, an artificial island which faces the risk of soil liquefaction. A group of Japanese and U.S. companies selected to invest in the resort complex asked the Osaka municipal government, which owns the land, to take steps to deal with the issue. At the end of last year, the local administration promised to cover all costs for measures against soil liquefaction and contamination.

There is no precedent for a city to foot the costs for measures to prevent soil liquefaction in reclaimed land. Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui and Hirofumi Yoshimura, the governor of Osaka Prefecture, who are working in tandem with the city to promote the project, ruled out using public funds for the resort complex. Naturally, the about-face surprised and angered many citizens.

The mayor contended that taxpayer money will not be used because the costs will come from a special account based on revenues from the landfill project. He also pledged that public funds will not be used for the IR facilities. These are nothing but lame excuses that don’t make sense.

During the hearings, many residents criticized the way the local authorities responded to their concerns.

The IR development law mandates local governments to hold public hearings for any IR project they promote. Only a short time elapsed between the announcement of the schedule for the hearings and the end of the period for applications to attend the events. Each participant was given only five minutes to speak.

In a related development, 11 scheduled meetings to explain the project to local residents were called off after the seventh session due to soaring COVID-19 cases. No opportunity was provided for online participation in both hearings and explanation sessions.

The prefectural and municipal governments have stressed the economic benefits of the project. They predict annual income of 106 billion yen from casino entrance fees and payments from the operator. They also claim the complex will generate 1.14 trillion yen in overall economic benefits for the local economy. But these projections are not backed by solid data or estimates.

Two local referendums were held with regard to moves to administratively reorganize Osaka city into a metropolis like Tokyo. There are now growing calls for a referendum on the IR project. This would seem to indicate a lack of trust in the way the local administrations push their policy initiatives, based on the slipshod manner in which they explained their plans and addressed local concerns.

In Wakayama Prefecture, where authorities are also seeking to host an IR in the city of Wakayama, residents collected more than the required number of signatures to call on the mayor to pass an ordinance to hold a referendum on the project. But the municipal assembly voted down the proposal.

An IR project serves as an acid test of how the local government chiefs and assemblies respond to concerns among local residents in their administrative jurisdictions. This is a challenge that also confronts Nagasaki Prefecture, another candidate to host an IR.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 5