Pachinko: Gambling the Legal Way in Japan

pachinko
It’s the weekend and I’m doing a little aimless window shopping around Matsuyama’s covered arcade (shōtengai) area. There are plenty of people out and about but this is Shikoku, where even the largest city would still be considered fairly quaint and even quite peaceful by Tokyo or Osaka standards; I’m therefore still able to identify the various background tunes coming from nearby stores. That is before a pair of doors to my right slide open at least and the sudden onslaught of sound drowns out everything within a half-mile radius. It washes over me along with a visible cloud of cigarette smoke and – lucky me! – I realize I happen to be standing right next to one of the shōtengai’s several pachinko parlors.

Fun fact: did you know that gambling is illegal in Japan? That’s right, there are no casinos as such in this country… well, there probably are, but they’re most like run by the yakuza and certainly aren’t open to the general public. City or prefecture-run lotteries are allowed, as is betting on public races (horses, bicycles, motorbikes, and powerboats) which are regulated by the government, but gambling for cash has otherwise been illegal here since 1882. Yet pachinko, a type of a mechanical game introduced in the 1920s, is popular enough that there are now around 20,0000 privately-run pachinko parlors across Japan.

Even weirder is the fact that pachinko machines were first created not as a gambling tool but rather a children’s toy, and was only picked up as an adult pastime circa 1930 in Nagoya before finally opening in the late 40s as any major commercial business. Something of a cross between a pinball and a slot machine, the goal in pachinko is to win as many small metal balls from the machine as possible. The slot machine is activated when the player’s ball makes it into a special hole, which then allows the player to potentially hit the jackpot by getting three numbers or symbols in a row. The more the player wins, the more silver balls are produced, which can be used to either keep playing or else be exchanged for ‘prizes’.

pachinko balls
And therein lies the reason why pachinko doesn’t technically count as gambling as far as Japanese law is concerned. The player doesn’t get money in place of these silver balls but instead anything from pens, candy and cigarette lighters to alcohol, electronics and leather handbags. However, the majority of players opt for the parlor’s “special prize” – usually a plastic-encased gold or silver novelty item which can be taken to a Totally Different Establishment and sold for cold hard cash. And since this shop is technically run as an independent business (even if it just so happens to be located right next door), pachinko is not officially considered gambling and therefore entirely legal.

We’re not talking about an institution that’s considered okay only by desperate gamblers or wannabe gangsters, either. A large number of both young and middle-aged salarymen regularly play as do plenty of retirees of both genders. Pachinko isn’t some shady back alleyway business but a billion dollar industry, and parlors are often large-scale, multi-storied affairs. They’re colourful to the point of gaudiness, with a ton of bright flashing lights and more noise than you’d think possible thanks to the combination of machine-generated music and the constant racket of clattering metal balls. A concentrated police effort in the 1960s and again in the 90s means that the yakuza, who were formerly present in much of the prize exchange business, are nowhere near as involved in the industry as you might think (in Tokyo for example, the exchange is handled exclusively by the TUC, or Tokyo Union Circulation company), and even kids are able to play a slightly modified version of the game in most major arcades.

pachinko parlor
Since these places don’t want to be thought of as seedy but instead fun and fashionable, pachinko is also closely associated with modern pop culture and it’s therefore extremely common to see parlors attempting to grab the attention of potential customers with images from the likes of Kamen Rider, Ultraman, Gundam, Evangelion and AKB48. The aim of any large pachinko parlor is to smack you over the head with its ostentatiousness and obvious pop culture references, hypnotize you once you’re in the door with its neon lights and flickering LCD screens, and keep you there with the unceasing machine-produced sound effects that hold the tantalizing promise of easy and immediate gratification.

pachinko akb48
And hey, does it really matter to the players if pachinko parlors charge about 4 yen per ball but redeem them for just 2.5 yen? Like any other commercial game, people are ostensibly playing not to win money but rather to have a good time, and pachinko parlors are going further and further in their efforts to try and create a more rewarding experience for their customers – installing (gasp!) smoke-free rooms, setting up special seats just for couples, offering prizes to appeal to every specific demographic, and even providing pamphlets with instructions in English in order to help out interested tourists. Moreover, since pachinko is essentially just down to luck, anyone can play and the atmosphere of excited tension is ever-present, win or lose.

You’ll probably lose, but that’s okay. Pachinko isn’t gambling, after all – it’s entertainment.

pachinko ad
Question of the post:
Have you ever played pachinko and if so, how was your experience? If not, do you think you ever would given the opportunity?

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21 thoughts on “Pachinko: Gambling the Legal Way in Japan

  1. Pachinko machines have some of the worst payout rates I’ve ever seen. Unless you go for the new machines, they’re just gonna suck you dry. I don’t have good memories of Pachinko. But yeah, they look really cool. Although I wonder how someone with epilepsy would handle those flashy animations…

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    • Yeah, whenever a brand new machine is installed there are often lines literally around the block.

      For me its the cigarette smoke I can’t handle. Even if I actually enjoyed playing pachinko my eyes would be watering within seconds of getting in the door.

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  2. Travelling through rural areas, it was quite noticeable how the pachinko parlours were often the biggest and newest buildings around. In a country where land is at a premium, they always had spacious parking areas next to them… and those carparks were often full.
    I never played pachinko, despite living near several parlours, and although curious I was never curious enough to brave the light, the sheer noise, and all the smoke. What’s the appeal?

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    • I don’t honestly know. What’s the appeal for any kind of gambling? The chance, even a very slight one, to win big while not having to ‘work’ for it I suppose. And while I personally don’t like pachinko I can see how the parlors could be quite hypnotic, all those sounds and bright flashing lights – much like I imagine Vegas would be (though that said, I’ve never been to Vegas so for all I know that comparison could be way off.)

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      • For some kinds of gambling – cards, horses, etc – there’s the perception that the gambler’s knowledge or skill can make a difference in the outcome and turn it into a profitable endeavour. I can understand the attraction of that, even if I don’t share the feeling. But pachinko, like slot machines, is essentially random. I just don’t get it.
        However there is research that indicates a form of operant conditioning is at work, in much the same way as a Skinner Box. I think the answer probably lies in that direction… but as I said, I’m not curious enough to find out.

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        • I guess that could be part of the equation right there. If people don’t see themselves as having any particular skills that would help them win a game of cards or whatever, it’s at least possible for them to win at pachinko because as you say, it’s all basically down to luck – literally anybody old enough to be in a parlor can do it.

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  3. Hmmm. I’m looking at pachinko and seeing an awful lot of similarities to the pokies that infest Australia. The only difference is the lower stakes, but they look like they’re designed to be addictive.

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    • I don’t have all that much experience with the pokies (plenty around in NZ too though), having only been to a casino a couple of times in my life. I do think they’re quite similar however, especially in terms of general atmosphere. Get the player alone, make them stare at the bright flashing lights for a while, and suddenly the real world seems a lot less real – especially if you’ve got the rush of already having won a few times, no matter how minor the payout.

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    • I’ve heard references to Chuck E. Cheese all my life from movies and TV and such, but I still have no idea what that place is like. No such thing in either Japan or New Zealand. I’ll take your word for it I guess?

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      • It’s kind of a playplace and arcade for kids where you order pizza and pay money for tokens which can be used to play games (quarters work, too). Some games are just for fun, but others you do something to win tickets (like throwing a basketball into a hoop or playing Whack-a-Mole). You exchange these tickets for varying prizes. The ticket-to-prize ratio is probably bonkers, but playing the game is more of the point than the prizes.

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  4. A Japanese friend (who was a middle school teacher at the time) and I once talked about Pachinko and wondered what the appeal was, though neither of us had ever actually tried it. We started to get very gung-ho about trying it just to know what it was like, but we never did because it didn’t want to do it in either of our towns. We’re public employees, after all, and if anyone recognized us there, they would complain about public employees squandering their paychecks. So despite how vastly common and widespread the industry is, there is still a little stigma.

    That said, those garish things are everywhere. I remember enjoyed a nice hike on a far-flung island and navigating my way back to the town after finding I had no cell phone service to call a taxi like I had originally planned. And of course, what was the first sign of civilization I found? A pachinko parlor that looked like it was stuck in the Showa period.

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    • Yeah, I know what you mean about there being something of a stigma. I probably wouldn’t want any of my kids or co-workers seeing me going into a pachinko parlor either – though that said, I just naturally stand out a ton more no matter where I go or what I do, whether I want to or not.

      I tried playing pachinko when I first visited Japan a few years back on holiday. ‘Tried’ being the operative word because I didn’t have a clue what was going on, even when the nice little obaachan in the seat next to me attempted to demonstrate. The noise and smoke drove me out really quickly.

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  5. I’m surprised Japan’s held out against gambling for this long, considering the potential billions in revenue the government could earn from it if marketed and regulated correctly. Even conservative Singapore eventually relented and allowed the Marina Bay Sands to be built in the name of economic diversification and increased tourism, which has since paid off.

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    • And yes, I would love to try play pachinko in the future. I saw plenty of parlours in Tokyo, but never got the chance to play any.

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    • I do wonder if Japan will relax their rules about gambling at least when it comes time for the Olympics. You’re right that there’s a ton of potential money to be earned there, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Japan tried to cash in on the flood of foreigners. On the other hand, I’m not all that surprised that Japan’s held out so far. Change seems to be something that happens incredibly slowly here no matter what the issue.

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  6. Haha I still haven’t played pachinko myself as I wasn’t game to go in by myself when we were in Matsuyama and you had already had the *pleasure*

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    • What can I say – once you’d had the dubious pleasure of getting a headache from the noise alone and inhaling a ton of cigarette smoke, it’s just not something you need to repeat. Ever.

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  7. Honestly, the only time I’ve seen pachinko mentioned was in the Takeshi’s Challenge episode of JonTron… (I must be watching the wrong anime.) So because of that, thanks for your post as a look into Japanese culture!

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