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Melco bets on Japanese culture as casino debate heats up

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By Nathan Layne and Farah Master

TOKYO/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Casino operator Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd on Wednesday said it had pledged $10 million for cultural projects in Japan, a signal of its commitment to the country as lawmakers take steps to legalize casino gambling.

Melco is one of several global casino operators including Las Vegas Sands lobbying for a position in the Japanese market, seen as the next big Asian gaming opportunity after the spectacular rise of Macau.

The Hong Kong-listed, Macau-based casino operator made no mention of its commercial interest in Japan when it announced its commitment to Tokyo's University of the Arts, although its desire to participate in any liberalization of the Japanese industry is well known.

"Melco really wants to do something to help contribute to cultural development in Japan. There is no defined set period for the commitment," company spokeswoman Maggie Ma said.

Japan is widely considered one of Asia's largest untapped markets after Macau, the world's biggest gambling hub. Industry analysts predict Japan could rake in $15 billion in annual gaming revenues, making it the second-biggest market globally.

Melco, controlled by Ho and Australian billionaire James Packer, said in a press release that it would contribute 1 billion yen, or roughly $10 million, on projects in coordination with the university.

The projects include research on urban development and a "Kimono Culture" event early next year.

In a written response to questions from Reuters, the university said the donation was unrelated to the ongoing debate about legalizing casino gaming.

Melco Crown is the fourth biggest casino operator by market capitalization in Macau, which overtook Las Vegas as the global gaming capital in 2006. The southern Chinese territory is on course to generate over $43 billion in gaming revenue this year.

A group of lawmakers earlier this month submitted a bill towards legalizing casino gambling in Japan. They hope to pass the bill in the first half of next year, and enact concrete regulations by 2015.

The bill is backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and is thought to have a decent chance of passing. Lawmakers hope the first casino resort could open in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Other global operators eyeing the Japanese market include MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts Ltd.

Casino operators often make donations to universities and community projects to build goodwill for an industry that can be politically controversial.

A $135 million donation by Wynn to a foundation affiliated with a university in Macau drew scrutiny from U.S. authorities, although the company was cleared of any wrongdoing.

(Additional reporting by Emi Emoto in Tokyo; Editing by Stephen Coates)

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