(Adds quotes from Abe)
* Abe gives endorsement to legislating casino gambling
* Says casinos could become a pillar of economic growth
* International casino companies positioning for a law
By Ritsuko Ando and Andrew Toh
TOKYO/SINGAPORE May 30 (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said casino resorts could become a pillar of his country's future economic growth as he toured Singapore's two lavish gaming venues on Friday.
Abe, who until now has remained silent on the issue of casinos, gave a strong endorsement to legislation that would legalise casino gambling in Japan.
"I think integrated resorts will be a key part of Japan's economic growth strategy," he was quoted by Japanese media as saying.
Japan, the world's third-largest economy, is considering allowing casino gambling to boost tourism and attract investment.
The country is widely seen as a prize market for casino operators due to its affluent population of 128 million and its close proximity to wealthy Asian gamblers in the region.
Abe visited the Marina Bay Sands, a three-tower resort on the Singapore waterfront owned by U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson's Las Vegas Sands, surprising tourists sunning themselves by the infinity pool on the rooftop as he appeared in a suit with members of the media in tow.
He then headed to Resorts World on Sentosa island, owned by Genting Singapore.
Abe, who was visiting Singapore to deliver a speech at a regional defence conference, said he hoped Japanese lawmakers would carefully consider the benefits casino resorts could bring.
"I would like them to deliberate with a perspective on what needs to be done to bolster Japan's attractiveness, and how to get people to visit," Japanese media quoted him as saying.
Japan has been deliberating on opening casinos for more than a decade but the chances now seem higher than previously.
While parliament is unlikely to pass a bill in the current parliament session which ends next month, proponents are aiming to pass one in the extraordinary session in the autumn, political and industry sources said on Friday.
"It's logistically difficult for it to pass in the current session," said one political source, adding that he and other supporters of the bill were still hoping to start parliamentary debate next month.
"I would say it's highly likely to pass in the fall."
The same source saw little likelihood that legislation would be delayed until next year, which could leave too little time to build the resorts in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But Toru Mihara, a professor at Osaka University of Commerce, said that was a possibility with some politicians still in opposition.
"In the worst case, it will be next year. We need to be prepared for that," he said.
If the current bill passes, debate will move on to a second bill concerning concrete regulations, which proponents hope can be passed in 2016.
International casino companies including Las Vegas Sands, Genting, MGM Resorts and Melco Crown Entertainment have all been trying to position themselves ahead of the bill passing.
Genting Singapore has set up eight subsidiaries in Japan for investment holding, leisure and related businesses, the company said on Tuesday in a notice to the Singapore stock exchange.
Adelson has said he would spend $10 billion on developing a casino resort while rivals have announced investment of around $5 billion for a casino in either Tokyo or Osaka.
Singapore's two integrated resorts, which combine casinos with dining, entertainment, and convention businesses, are the preferred model Japan would emulate, lawmakers have said.
Marina Bay Sands, which cost $5.4 billion, has helped to boost convention business in Singapore, while Resorts World Sentosa, which houses a Universal Studios theme park and a large aquarium, has helped Singapore to lure record numbers of tourists since opening in 2010.
Industry executives have said in private that a Marina Bay Sands-type resort, near Singapore's financial district, would be a good fit for Tokyo while a more leisure-focused resort like Sentosa would be better suited to Osaka or a regional city.
(Writing by Farah Master in Hong Kong and Rachel Armstrong in Singapore; Additional reporting by Yoshiyuki Osada in Osaka and Masayuki Kitano in Singapore; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan/Nick Macfie/Susan Fenton)
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