Earlier this year we reported on the growth of poker in Japan where gambling is illegal. To achieve this without having to totally go underground, the only safe option for poker to be played in Japan was to offer tournaments with packages to major events in Asia as prizes. This became an immediate hit. Today its growing popularity has seen tournaments increase in the country, with many Japanese players now making their way into major international events such the Macau Poker Cup, the APPT, the ACOP, and most especially, the APT events. Although we aren’t certain of the dynamics of these satellites, the influx has been tremendous, and not just in numbers, but in their accomplishments in the overall Asian poker scene as well.
2015: A great year for Japanese Poker Pros
In January 2015, Poker online giant, PokerStars, signed Japanese online pro Kosei Ichinose. Ichinose is widely known in the online poker world as Japan’s first Supernova Elite player. He also already amassed over $300K in live tournaments earnings (stats according to Hendon Mob).
In late-May, another Japanese online poker pro was recognized, Akira Ohyama, who was signed by 888Poker. Ohyama emerged in the Asian live scene in 2012 and has consistently cashed in many events since, however like Ichinose, his online stats are also what make him stand out with nearly US$1.5M in earnings (stats according to PocketFives).
Akira Ohyama (Team 888Poker)
Along with these online masters are Japanese pros highly active and recognized in the Asian poker live arena. This year saw Japanese player Takahiro Nakai win a WSOP bracelet. Nakai became the second player from Japan to win the coveted gold with Naoya Kihara winning one in 2012. One other Japanese player having a stellar year is Iori Yogo. He has earned around $117K so far this year and currently ranks second in the APT Player of the Year leader board. Another player with consistent cashes as well is Azusa Maeda who added this year three APT trophies to his poker shelf. Female poker pro Yuri Ishida, by far the top female player in the Asian circuit, ranks fifth in the Japan Global Poker Index.
Tetsuya Tsuchikawa, who is possibly the catalyst for bringing a slew of Japanese players into the live Asian scene has also to be mentionned. He has several trophies under his belt including a big one after winning the WPT National Main Event held in the Philippines a year ago. In 2015, he managed to finish five time in the money during the WSOP in Las Vegas
Testsuya Tsuchikawa (Photo WPT Blog)
Japan’s proposed casino bill
As much as these poker players are recognized in Asia, there is still an overwhelming desire to have poker legalized in their home country. For years, poker has grown tremendously in Asia with Japan proving to be one of the untapped growing markets. As it stands, Macau and the Philippines continue to host the biggest international poker events throughout the year. But change may be in the horizon with the proposed casino bill back on the table, driven by the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics to be held in Tokyo.
If the bill is passed, it will allow for casino-based integrated resorts to be established, hopefully in time for the games. Although it is uncertain how poker fits into all this, having casinos certainly opens doors for many possibilities in the future. Even if poker is currently viewed as a gambling game, which is why poker clubs in the country do not offer cash prizes, if the bill gets passed, you can bet that poker organizers and operators will be very interested in finding ways to tap the market. The question then is, will poker be rejected and continue to run the way it is today? Will it be similar to Vietnam where poker is offered in some casinos but locals are not allowed to play? Or will it be embraced whole-heartedly giving poker a new destination for everyone including the Japanese? That has yet to be unraveled.
However, as it stands, 2015 is rapidly coming to a close, and despite having the support of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and several coalition parties, the highly supported casino bill has not been given the priority at the country’s parliament. Although there is still hope that both houses (lower and upper) will have time to review and possibly pass it through by the end of the year, for Japanese poker players, the game continues with their sights set on dominating the Asian scene outside of their homeland.