Some 14 people were detained in Tokyo, Japan, last week after police raided an illegal poker room in the city. Law enforcement descended on a property in the ward of Shinjuku, taking into custody four individuals allegedly leading the operation. They also arrested 10 who were participating in the events.
The raid netted an operation that reportedly made ¥27 million (slightly more than US $237,000) since May, according to local media outlets. The 10 who were found participating were released; however, they could still face charges of illegal gambling.
It’s uncommon for poker to be the target of underground gambling establishments in Japan. Usually, the game of choice is baccarat. However, with popular Japanese figures, such as Kazuki Ikeuchi and Motoyoshi Okamura, having participated in this year’s WSOP poker series, the game has seen a surge in popularity. Both Japanese poker players took home bracelets during the most recent series.
The underground poker room was skirting the law. Gambling is mostly prohibited in Japan, although pachinko and lotteries are allowed under certain conditions. Playing poker for recreation isn’t prohibited, but offering cash prizes for tournaments is still illegal. While it isn’t clear whether the poker room was rewarding prizes, it was stated that the organizers charged a 5% rake on all hands.
Gambling Causes a Stir in Japan
Over the years, a number of illegal gambling operations have been broken up in Japan. However, they always find a way back. In September of last year, police announced the arrest of a boss of the Yakuza, who they said was running an illegal casino in Tokyo. That operation, reportedly in business for almost two years, had seen revenue of around US $4.5 million during that time.
Earlier in the year, another raid in Tokyo also nabbed a supposed Yakuza boss. This was reportedly tied to a poker room in the Sumida Ward. While not as lucrative as the illegal casino, it was said to have turned a profit of around US $111,000 in less than a year. In both cases, the money was helping fund organized crime in Japan, according to media reports.
As legal gambling, through integrated resorts (IR), begins to possibly move to the final stages of acceptance, there are concerns that it, too, will be controlled by organized crime. When the Japanese government finalized its IR Policy in 2018, the Yakuza warned that it would find a way to take over the legal market.
Japan’s Move Toward Legalized Poker
Legalized gambling, despite the Yakuza’s threat, is meant to help combat black market gambling. Japan is hoping that will be the case as it prepares to consider possibly approving up to three IR hosts next year.
Poker has had an interesting path in Japan. It hasn’t yet received the level of acceptance as other forms of gambling, which means it isn’t on legislators’ radars, either. Little by little, organizations are working to change this and give the game a front-row spot. The World Poker Tour (WPT) has spent the past couple of years trying to change the paradigm, but still has a long way to go. Since it cannot offer real-money prizes, it has to be creative with its rewards.
The WPT Passport is a prize that covers the expenses of participation in a WPT event held elsewhere. However, for many, it’s not the same as winning cash. As long as cash games can be found, even illegally, they will continue to flourish.