-OpEd-

TOKYO — On Dec. 2, Japan’s lawmakers voted for a bill that permits casinos. The aim of the legislation was to boost tourism and revitalize the economy.

Gambling has been strictly prohibited in Japan ever since Empress Jito in the Seventh Century banned playing games for money. Japanese envoys learned gambling from China. They were dispatched to Chang’an, capital of the prosperous Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD) to study institutions and culture. "This is the only bad habit that our envoys have learned from China,” Empress Jito said at the time.

Until now, Japanese law made gambling a criminal offense. A gambler could have been punished with a 500,000 yen ($4,200) fine. Repeat offenders faced three-year jail sentences. The only exceptions were betting on horse, boat, and motorcycle races. Popular “pachinko machines” found in video game arcades were also allowed but they were strictly regulated.

So how did the gambling bill pass the Japanese parliament? Casino owners may have Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to thank.

“Abenomics, which started with such a high-profile in 2013, has now come to a dead end. On the other hand, as many as five million Chinese people visited Japan between January and September this year. This has given Mr. Abe’s government the idea to set up casinos everywhere in Japan to attract even more Chinese tourists,” says a lawmaker close to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“Hopefully the year 2020, when Japan holds the Tokyo Olympic Games, will be a new beginning for Japan’s economic revival,” says the lawmaker.

On Nov. 30, Japan’s lower house of parliament started to review the casino bill. It took just six hours for the parliament’s cabinet committee to discuss the legislation. By Dec. 6, the bill had already passed on to the senate.

"Ever since Mr. Abe met (American President-elect Donald) Trump on Nov. 17 at the Trump Tower, he has become another person since returning home. His view is that since casino king Mr. Trump is going to be president, Japan should set up casinos to build new Japan-US relations,” says the same anonymous lawmaker.

The speed with which the legislation passed left little time for Japan’s opposition parties to come up with objections.

Abe is one of the six longest-serving prime ministers since Japan’s parliament was established in 1889. A Nov. 26 poll by Japan’s Kyodo News Agency showed that the Abe government enjoys wide support. Before rise to power, the country had been through a rotating series of governments. “Every New Year, we change not just the Zodiac sign but also the prime minister’s face,” is an old Japanese joke.

Yet, even after more than four years in office, the Abe administration’s popularity remains high, currently still hovering above 60% approval rating.

Key to Abe’s power

How is Abe able to sustain such power and public support? He took over from a Democratic Party government that was ridiculed as a "kindergarten cabinet.” In other words, no matter what Abe’s policies are, the Japanese public tolerate them because they believe he can never be worse than the previous government.

Putin and Abe on Dec. 15 — Photo: Kremlin

In September, Renho Murata, a Taiwanese-Japanese politician, was elected leader of the Democratic Party. Since then the party has struggled even more. Meanwhile, instability caused by Brexit, the election of Trump, and, most recently, the risk of impeachment of South Korean president Park Guen-hye has prompted the Japanese public to hold on to a stable government.

Abe’s cunning as a politician was able to avert the rise of other leaders such as Fumio Kishida and Yoshihide Suga who could have potentially taken his place. He appointed Kishida as foreign minister to keep him occupied. He promoted Toshihiro Nikai, the man most hated by Yoshihide, to be the party secretary-general to contain Yoshihide’s ambitions.

Meanwhile, Abe continues to stand tall on the world stage. Last month, he had high-profile meetings with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama. Looking ahead to 2017, Japan's leader looks like a safe bet to consolidate his power both at home and abroad.