Yakuza poker room bust could impact Japanese gambling legalization

Jon Pill
Published by:
Posted on 04/27/2021

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police busted an illegal poker room over the weekend. According to TV Asahi, the poker room has links to Tokyo’s organized crime syndicates. The police arrested four customers, two young (19 and 20) female dealers, and the 43-year-old Korean man who ran the joint. The police also confiscated stacks of cards and poker chips as evidence in the case.

Police were responding to multiple anonymous tips about a poker room in an apartment building near Kinshicho Station’s northern exit.

The business is reported to have raked in about ¥12 million (~$111,000), a portion of which is believed to have made its way into the pockets of yakuza syndicates.

Tensions in Japan are high over the legalization of casinos. The handful of cities that are allowed to host casinos have all been subject to widespread protests. Developers are still fighting for the licenses to build the Integrated Resorts, and the ink is still pretty wet on the various bills in the National Diet.

These IRs will house the first permanent poker rooms in Japan. Online, some websites were previously allowed to host one-off or annual events like the WPT Japan. Outside of these instances, Japanese poker players have to learn to play poker on unregulated offshore sites, or in yakuza gambling dens.

The tip of the iceberg

Much of the public debate around legalizing casinos in Japan centers around either inflaming or assuaging concerns about problem gambling and addiction. The new laws for casino legalization contain forceful limitations on how much money Japanese locals are allowed to spend in casinos. The laws also curtail the number of times per month gamblers can visit.

However, the most recent reports suggest that while problem gambling is at the forefront of public debate, behind the scenes discussions focus on tackling organized crime. This weekend’s bust emphasizes that difference.

The perception is that illegal gambling is linked to bōryokudan — literally “violent groups,” the Japanese press’s preferred word for “gangsters.” That perception could work in the poker industry’s favor. One of Japan’s ongoing problems with gambling is that prohibition hasn’t helped to stop it. Instead, players have used offshore gambling sites or resorted to underground gambling dens.

Banning gambling often turns the market into pure profit for organized crime.

Thanks to potential legislative ambiguity, when legal poker comes to Japan, it will most likely accompany some of the largest casinos in the world. Such a move would utterly dwarf any effort organized crime could slide under the radar. You can be sure the National Diet will be scrutinizing this bust as it unfolds.

Featured image source: Flickr by Simone Parisi