July 01, 2010

Sumo and Japan’s porous gambling ban

One intriguing legal quirk behind Japan’s escalating sumo scandal: if the wrestlers had bet on soccer instead of baseball, they wouldn’t have broken the law.

In general, gambling, or “tobaku” has been banned under the criminal law enacted in 1882 after the Meiji restoration in order to nurture a work ethic. In a famous 1965 case, a Tokyo high court judge upheld betting limits, writing: “the main idea of having a law prohibiting gambling is to protect a healthy sense of economy among the people.”

But exceptions have cropped up over the years.

Horse racing was legalized in the early 20th century to help produce faster and sturdier horses that were useful for wars.

Betting on racing by bicycles, motorcycles, and motorboats was allowed just after the war in order to allow impoverished citizens to dream about getting rich quick, “which they had no way to do on their own,” wrote Akihiko Sasaki, an economic professor of Kyushu Kyoritsu University, in a 1999 book on public gambling.

Officials also saw legally sanctioned gambling as a way to raise revenues — and betting on those sports still helps the central government, and many local governments, saddled with deficits. In this fiscal year ended this past March, Japanese governments reaped about 4.7 trillion yen ($52 billion) in revenues from public sports, and over one trillion yen ($11 billion) from public lotteries.

The sports lottery “toto” – named after the Italian soccer lottery “totocalcio”― to bet on Japanese professional soccer games was introduced in 2001. Revenues are spent on sports facilities and to train sports teachers.

Then there’s pachinko. Players can go to the ubiquitous Japanese pinball parlors and make money. But that’s not “gambling,” by the lights of the law, since the cash prize is not handed out to winners inside pachinko parlors. Instead, players get winning tokens inside the parlors, then redeem them for cash at a nearby booth outside operated by someone else.

Now, casino gambling may be coming to Japan, to lure more tourists and generate more government revenue. A group of 73 lawmakers across different parties is considering submitting a bill in parliament this fall to legalize casinos in Japan.

The Osaka governor visited casinos in South Korea and Singapore early this year as part of his campaign to build one in Osaka. The Chiba governor has proposed building a casino next to Narita International Airport.

That has drawn critics, still steeped in the Meiji-era antipathy toward gambling. “Everyone will stop working hard,” one blogger wrote in April after the group of lawmakers formed to promote legalizing casinos. “Is there any country that has prospered because of gambling?”

Anticipating such concerns, Katsuaki Ishii, a manager promoting the airport-area casino told JRT that the casino would only be open to foreigners so “it won’t affect Japanese.”

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