By Thomas Wilson
TOKYO (Reuters) - A contentious bill to legalize casinos in Japan cleared a key parliamentary panel on Tuesday, paving the way for high-stakes gambling in the world's third-biggest economy.
Brushing off concerns - even from within Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition - over gambling addiction and other social ills, lawmakers in an upper house committee approved the bill, which essentially assures its enactment into law. It had failed repeatedly in previous parliaments to come up for a vote.
Domestic and international companies from MGM Resorts International <MGM.N> to Japanese game-machine maker Sega Sammy Holdings Inc <6460.T> could benefit from legalized casinos in Japan, a market that brokerage CLSA estimates could be worth up to $40 billion a year.
Abe coalition has a strong majority in the upper house, so the bill is almost certain to be approved by the full chamber on Wednesday, the last day of this parliamentary session. It has already cleared the lower house.
Vocal criticism of the bill from both the ruling coalition and opposition parties had centered on concerns about gambling-related social ills such as addiction and organized crime.
An opinion poll this week by public broadcaster NHK found opposition at 44 percent and support at just 12 percent, with 34 percent of respondents undecided.
"Whether casinos will be a plus or not for society is not only a question of making money," said Masaaki Machida of gambling addiction support group Hopehill.
"Costs for treating, imprisoning, or hospitalizing (addicts) would be a spiritual, economic and social loss for Japan."
Supporters of the bill, which allows for large-scale projects that combine casinos with hotel, shopping and conference space, see casinos as a way to boost tourism - a key success of Abe's economic growth policies.
Proponents hope to submit legislation next year to set out full details of the construction, regulation and location of these "integrated resorts."
Tokyo, neighboring Yokohama and the western city of Osaka are in the running as potential locations for casinos. Smaller places on the islands of Kyushu and Hokkaido are also hopeful of being selected.
Japan is already home to government-backed gambling in the form of betting on horse, boat and bicycle races.
"Pachinko" pinball parlors, ubiquitous in Japanese towns and cities, are also tolerated despite their legally gray status.
(Reporting by Thomas Wilson; Editing by William Mallard and Neil Fullick)