Yokohama Officials Reject Casino Referendum, City Moving Forward with Integrated Resort Dreams
The Yokohama City Council has rejected a resident-led campaign to ask voters whether they want to authorize an integrated resort (IR) casino in Japan’s second-largest city.
The “Yokohama Citizens’ Group to Decide on a Casino” successfully obtained far more than the 62,500 resident signatures required to propose a ballot referendum question to the City Council. In fact, the city certified more than 200,000 signatures.
The group believes commercial gambling is largely opposed by Yokohama people. The referendum effort was designed to persuade lawmakers to consider public opposition of a casino resort.
The people’s voice, however, will not be heard. The City Council easily rejected the proposed ballot referendum during a meeting last Friday.
The 86-person council, the city’s legislative unit, is controlled by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP is the party of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is continuing his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s wishes to make the Land of the Rising Sun a more appealing leisure and tourism destination.
Referendums in Japan are not lawmaking vehicles, as they are in the United States. Instead, referendums are simply the public’s way of making their voices heard on pending legislative efforts.
When a referendum has the required public support by way of resident signatures, city councils are not required to approve the motion and put the question before voters. And even when a referendum does make the ballot, results have no legal consequence — meaning if the casino question came back with a majority opposition, the city could nonetheless continue with its plan to bring an IR to the region.
Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi initially said she would support a valid referendum and urged the council to move it to the election booth. But the mayor, also a LDP member, reversed course last week and said a referendum would only derail the city’s goals of winning one of the three forthcoming IR licenses.
Instead of allowing the referendum to progress, the Yokohama City Council voted to enter into its request-for-proposal (RFP) phase and begin soliciting business plans from interested companies. Melco Resorts is a leading candidate for the Yokohama casino development.
Once Yokohama picks its partner, the city and the Kanagawa Prefecture will bid to the central government in hopes of winning one of the three commercial IR licenses.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike announced in December that the country’s largest city is considering entering the casino pool. That might have prompted Hayashi to reconsider her stance to back the referendum.
Japan’s Basic Policy on commercial gambling authorizes three IR properties. The LDP wants to use the resorts to spur tourism throughout the country, which is why allowing a casino in both Tokyo and Yokohama is unlikely. The downtown areas of the two neighboring cities are less than 20 miles apart.
Tokyo has yet to formally announce its candidacy for an IR. But if it does, casino operators will pounce. The capital city, home to more than 8.6 million residents, is the political and economic hub of Japan.
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