Is Pachinko really 'just a game' in Japan?
Whether simply playing games or gambling, who can resist a chance to win? It’s human nature. Nothing better represents this in Japan than pachinko - that vertical pinball-like game in which you manipulate a cascade of steel balls down a maze of pins with a knob.
The LCD display and animation are mesmerizing. The neon surroundings and deafening sound effects are mind numbing. What’s most captivating of all, though, is anxiously anticipating that the next round may be it – a jackpot!
Pachinko parlors dot the Japanese archipelago from northern Hokkaido to the southern island of Okinawa like, well, the countless balls that fill a pachinko machine. There is at least one near virtually every train station. The National Police Agency’s “official” count of registered parlors was 11,893 in 2013, but the number seems low by any stretch of the imagination.
About 11 million people play pachinko annually, grossing the industry 19 trillion yen ($190 billion) last year alone, according to the Japan Productivity Center. The game used to generate even more revenue.
“Pachinko was 30 trillion yen industry 20 years ago,” says Hideaki Nakayama of the Japan Game Industry Association. “But it has been shrinking every year as leisure activities diversify; and pachinko is getting computerized and harder to play these days.” But you’d hardly notice.
It’s common to see people lining up outside a pachinko parlor before it opens in the morning to get the machine they think will pay out. Players often stay till evening, having won – or lost – a day’s pay or more.
“I’ve won 150,000 yen ($1,500) in a day and lost 70,000 yen ($700) on another day,” says longtime player and restaurateur, Akira Suzuki, 43. “But, I think I’ve won about 2 to 3 million yen ($20,000 to $30,000) over my 20-year career.”
Others, like Masahiro Funasaka, 34, who admits being giddy with anticipation just waiting in line for a parlor to open, have not come out ahead. The Tokyo store manager says pachinko has earned him as much as 250,000 yen in a day over the past 17 years of play.
“But I’ll lose as much as 70,000 yen on other days,” he says. “In all, I think I have lost 1 or 2 million yen.”
“Gambling addiction,” you say? Relax, it’s just a game. So says the Japanese government. In fact, although you wouldn’t know it by the looks of things, gambling is illegal in Japan.
According to Nakayama, unlike gambling, which relies on chance, pachinko is considered a form of amusement.
“You don’t need skill to win at a slot machine, just a lucky pull of the lever; but pachinko requires skill and technique to turn the handle to aim and control the shots (of the balls),” Nakayama says. “You win the game with skilled techniques and good aim.”
What about the tens and hundreds of thousands of yen individuals win and lose at pachinko every day? It’s simple: No cash winnings are exchanged inside pachinko parlors, allowing authorities to turn a blind eye to, if not embrace, de facto gambling. (It’s widely understood that police flock to the industry for well-paid post-retirement jobs.) What is often called “santen hoshiki,” or the three-shop way, is employed.
When you want to exchange the winnings of steel balls you’ve amassed, a staffer carries them to an automated counter. After recording the number of balls, the staffer gives you a voucher or card.
Every parlor has a corner of prizes ranging from pencils and candy to Chanel handbags and bicycles that you can trade your wining voucher for.
Almost everyone, however, chooses the so-called special prize, usually worthless plastic boxes, empty cigarette lighters or colored cards. You take the special prizes to a separate exchange booth – outside the pachinko parlor – to exchange them for cash.
Not calling gambling “gambling,” however, does not make pachinko players immune to the woes – and horrors – of gambling addiction. They can be prone to extreme debt, unscrupulous lenders and work and family problems.
There have also been several incidents over the years when children and infants died of heatstroke or dehydration because parents left them in parked vehicles all day to play pachinko.
In fact, in 2000, pachinko took off as a popular pastime in South Korea as well. But amid growing concerns over pachinko-related debt, suicides, and other violence it was outlawed there in 2006.
For lovers and seasoned players of the game in Japan, however, pachinko is a great pastime and an indispensable factor in their lives.
“I play pachinko to relieve stress,” Funasaka says. “Although I lose badly once in a while, I forget that. I only remember winning the game; it drives me to keep playing.”
“I think pachinko is the easiest and most fun way to gamble,” Suzuki says. “If you are careful pay attention and study it, you definitely won’t lose too much.”
And it’s a sure thing that is what Japan’s $190 billion pachinko industry is betting on.
How the ball got rolling
First built in the 1920s, pachinko machines were originally carnival-like kids games modeled after European “wall games.” They were named for the sound, “pachin,” the balls make as they ricochet.
Pachinko emerged as an adult pastime in Nagoya City around 1930 when Masamura Takeichi developed a complicated arrangement of nails that made it more challenging.
Pachinko parlors were closed during World War II, but re-emerged soon after. The first commercial parlor opened in Nagoya in 1948. They surged in popularity as there were few other forms of entertainment in postwar Japan, and materials needed to make the machines were readily available.
“Farmers near Nagoya used the glass from their greenhouses to make pachinko machines, and that may be why Nagoya is now a pachinko mecca,” said Japan Game Industry Association’s Hideaki Nakayama. “A lot of pachinko chains have their head offices in Nagoya today, and that city has the third-highest number of pachinko parlors after Tokyo and Osaka.”
Although pachinko was banned in South Korea in 2006 after a 6-year surge in popularity, ironically, Korean residents of Japan have traditionally owned and operated many of its pachinko parlors.
“There are many parlors run by Koreans or Chinese in Japan,” Nakayama said. “They entered the pachinko industry soon after the war because it was one of the few industries where they could compete fairly with Japanese.”