(Corrects in penultimate paragraph possible date for passage of second casino bill to 2015, not 2016)
By Nathan Layne
TOKYO, June 3 Japan's parliament will likely start discussing next week a bill to legalise casino gambling although proponents may hold off voting until the autumn in a strategic move to prevent opponents from killing it, a key supporter of the bill said on Tuesday.
Takeshi Iwaya, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and a leading casino proponent, said he had some success in recent weeks in garnering support for the bill from a coalition partner and the main opposition party.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to two integrated resorts in Singapore last week, where he said casinos could help to revitalise the economy, also underlined growing support for opening up the Japanese market, Iwaya said.
"We are getting close to starting debate," Iwaya told a gathering of business executives, later telling Reuters that a lower house committee could kick off debate next week. "It is best to strike while the iron is hot."
With time running short, Iwaya acknowledged that lawmakers may fail to achieve their original goal of getting the bill passed by both chambers of parliament during the current session ending on June 22.
As a fall-back strategy, Iwaya said proponents may look to kick off debate in the lower house - where backing for the bill is strong - but stop short of pushing for its passage during the current session.
This manoeuvre would ensure that the bill remains in discussion by the lower house and is carried over into an expected extraordinary parliament session in the fall, allowing proponents to "keep a grip" on the bill, Iwaya said.
The strategy reflects concerns that the bill could be scrapped if it were rushed into the hands of the relevant upper house committee, which is chaired by an opposition party member who is not keen on bringing casinos to Japan, Iwaya said.
A group of more than 200 lawmakers promoting the bill had originally hoped to start debate in late April or early May, but it has taken a backseat to other legislation.
The delayed debate has raised concerns the bill may not be adopted this year, which would make it difficult for developers to build resorts in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Brokerage CLSA estimates that Japan could become Asia's biggest gambling market after Macau, raking in revenues of at least $40 billion annually and with many more years of growth before it starts to mature.
If the current bill passes, debate will move on to a second bill concerning concrete regulations, which proponents hope can be passed in 2015.
International casino companies including Las Vegas Sands Corp, Genting Singapore PLC, MGM Resorts International and Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd have all been trying to position themselves in Japan in anticipation of legalised casino gambling. (Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando and Emi Emoto; Editing by Edmund Klamann and David Evans)