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’.
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.
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.
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.