The Japanese are coming! It is a slow and steady unraveling rather than any sort of major invasion, but there is no disputing the growing appetite for poker in the land of the rising sun.
It seemed as though things were about to get sticky when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s moves to introduce western style casino territories ran into trouble last year. But Abe’s re-election combined with the organic growth of poker outside the political arena are slowly but surely bringing the game to the Japanese public.
The presence of Vanessa Selbst at the Japan Open earlier this month points to the way the game is gaining in profile and popularity in Japan. Selbst and her fellow sponsored competitors aside, seats at the tournament were derived entirely form players who had qualified by playing online. As things stand currently, cash gaming is still barred in Japan, but prizes at the tournament are geared on the same rationale towards winning players earning seats at tournament tables at the Macau Poker Cup, Asia Pacific Poker Tour and the Asian Championship of Poker.
Those same Japanese players are increasingly online casino sites like the world renowned 32Red, PokerStars and 888 poker, and it seems only a matter of time before the world’s third largest economy fully embraces the worldwide poker boom. It goes without saying that there is plenty of motivation for those big name providers to gain as much of a foothold in the region as they possibly can.
Naoya Kihara lead the revolution, becoming the first Japanese player to win a World Series of Poker bracelet in 2012. His interest in promoting the game amongst his fellow countrymen has seen him energetically promoting events and his own writing—perhaps to the detriment of his tournament play. However the recent high profile sponsorship of Kosei Ichinose, who picked up the game as a student in Canada nine years ago, and now boasts $305,677 in winnings from live tournaments, and a further $2,297,411 in online earnings, suggests that the Japanese market is now very much on the radar of the game’s big hitters.
For all the fuss and frivolity that goes with a tournament, and tournament players, it is the online market that is where the serious money is being targeted. Given the voracious appetite amongst Japanese consumers for handheld devices—sales are predicted to top 88 million by 2017 the gaming opportunities that they allow, Japan offers the prospect of rich pickings for those who are able to make the breakthrough.
Lobbying amongst Japanese politicians remains intense, and there are suggestions that the much debated and delayed casino bill could actually be passed before the end of 2015—although we have been down this road at least once already.
However, poker—as ever—has a lot to commend it: it carries a distinctive Western cachet, which gives it an exotic appeal that—to a degree—puts it outside the Japanese cultural context. Marketed correctly that can be a valuable asset. Likewise the calculative, mind-sport aspect of the game, which already has corollaries with Japanese pastimes that garner more respect that the ubiquitous pachinko.
There is clearly a place for Japan in the poker firmament. It seems just a matter of time before there is a place for poker in Japan.