Japan has an unrivalled reputation as a market for new technologies. Think Japan and it impossible not to imagine pristine, bustling streets full of people wedded to their smartphones, their iPods and any number of other gadgets as they go busily about their daily lives. Japan may have been struggling economically in recent times, but the land of the rising sun is still one of the most vibrant and developed economies on Earth. And that economic powerhouse status, combined with a seemingly insatiable appetite for state of the art technology represents a virtuous cycle that is at the heart of the Japanese economy.

Digital delight

Image Credit: MBEO/Flicker
Image Credit: MBEO/Flicker

Whether it is cars, computer games or smartphones, you will find the most modern, cutting edge developments on the streets of Japan long before those same devices arrive in Africa. When it comes to technological matters, the Japanese are at the cutting edge.

But the Japanese delight in all things new – and especially digital technology – is opening up a whole new set of pass-times. In a nation that in many respects is deeply conservative, there is an inevitable tension between what digital technologies enable and what cultural sensitivity permits.

The political angle

Nowhere is this tension more evident than in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to open up the Japanese gambling market. On the one hand Abe is keen to follow the models of neighbouring states like Macau and Singapore, and establish lavish casinos in order to attract tourists and the money they inevitably bring with them. Allied to this push is the developing interest in online gambling throughout the population. But set against this progressive agenda there are conservatives who are keen to retain Japan’s historical cultural identity and distinctiveness, irrespective of what the rest of the world is doing or what smartphone technology allows.

All the signs are that it is the prime minister rather than his conservative opponents who is on the right track. With the huge level of smartphone take up in Japan – it is almost 100% of the population – it is hardly surprising that hand held gaming of all types is also flourishing. And this as true of online casinos and poker sites as sit is more juvenile pass-times.

Business is booming

International casino providers such as the highly regarded 32Red and 888 casinos are already doing a brisk business on the back of the smartphone boom, and the Japanese market generally is viewed as a ripe area for growth over the years ahead as that conservative thinking is seen as ever more out of date. It is no surprise therefore that 32Red and their rivals are looking towards Japan ahead of Africa for their next big promotional push.

Part of the reason for this is that the notion of casino gambling has no history in Japan. It represents precisely the sort of contemporary, globalised pastime that the Prime Minister’s conservative opponents are so keen to shut down. But they are clearly blowing against the historical wind. Online gaming and gambling are surging right around the globe. The online gambling industry has enjoyed incredible growth over the past decade – rising from a level of $4 billion in 2004 to ten times that figure by the end of the current year.

Japan is next

That surge has been driven most spectacularly by what happens in the US and Europe (the US is said to account for up to 30% of that figure and Europe 54%) but it is a trend that increasingly catching on in the Far East as well. There is a growing acceptance that the technology enables a form of gaming that is safe, secure and free of many of the dubious associations that have marked bricks and mortar gambling in Japan in the past.

That is not to say that African markets are being ignored. That is most certainly not the case, but inevitably the huge wealth of opportunities available in Asia is setting the agenda. The political backdrop is also significant. Currently the situation in Japan means that providers are able to supply customers more easily there than they can in parts of Africa, although each territory has its own rules and regulations. 

Africa will follow

Africa’s gamblers have been hard hit economically in recent years to a higher degree than many others, and to date the growth in gambling has lagged behind that of the rest of the world, including Japan. But that is not to say that the situation cannot change. Indeed, with growing affluence and the provision of ever greater communication infrastructures, it is surely only a matter of time before the sort of tensions that are marking the Japanese context start to be played out in the halls of power around Africa. There are already, for example, strong campaigns underway in South Africa to change the current legislation.

There is much in all our lives that has its roots deep in our national, tribal and family histories. But the ever growing level of connectivity that smartphones and the internet enable are forcing us to rethink how we do things – and that extends all the way down to how we might entertain ourselves in our down time.