Pachinko is the largest industry in the world’s second largest economy, but few people outside Japan have ever heard of it. Raking in over 30 trillion yen every year (to the pathetic 18 trillion of Japan’s massive car industry), it’s also the world’s largest gambling enterprise. Vegas is small change compared to this.
Pachinko parlours are not difficult to find. There are thousands of them, spread across buzzing commercial areas and sleepy suburban streets. Covered in massive neon signs, they are an essential part of Japan’s urban character.
Walk in, and you're immediately greeted with rows and rows of flashing machines. Pop music is blasted at full volume in an attempt to mask the sound of crashing steel. Uniformed staff scamper around with trays of balls or drinks. In front of most machines, you see grim faces, but they don't see you.
How to Play
Here’s a quick guide for playing pachinko:
- 1. Get some change.
- 2. Sit in front of a machine.
- 3. Put some money into the machine. This puts balls into the tray in front of you.
- 4. Turn plastic dial a bit. This shoots the balls into the game. Hold it there. Watch balls run through. Smoke a few packs of cigarettes. Once in a while, one of the little balls drops into a hole. Then, something magical happens. You win more balls.
- 5. Turn dial. Watch balls run through.
- 6. Repeat steps 1-5 until (a) you don’t have any money, (b) you have to go back to work, or (c) your wife drags you out.
The most difficult aspect of the game, apart from watching your money fly away at dizzying speed, is controlling the flow of balls. Many serious players avoid this irritating element of skill by getting the control dial into a good position, and jamming a coin in to lock it there. This leaves both hands free for cigarette smoking and nose picking. Truly Japanese, pachinko rewards patient obsessiveness.
The Americans are indirectly to blame for this madness. In the 1920’s, Japan went crazy over Chicago’s “Coringth Game”. Originally, prizes were limited to fruit and sweets, but these were difficult to plug back into the machine, so people started using money instead.
The Japanese couldn’t get enough of the monotonous clacking of the ball bearings but there was fierce dissention over whether the sound was more of a “pachi-pachi” or a “gachanko”. The name pachinko was coined, and a national passion was born.
Last of all, the machines were stacked vertically, packing the eager slot-monkeys closer together.
Breaking the law
After a hard night of sensory overload, a lucky punter can exchange his metal balls for sweets, toys or lighter flints. Gambling is illegal in Japan, so parlours can’t offer cash prizes. However, the industry found a loophole. These useless trinkets are taken out of the parlour, around the corner, down an alley, to a conspicuous hole in the wall. Here, you can exchange your winnings for cash.
These anonymous hands play a crucial, and highly illegal, role in the pachinko industry. They are independent entrepreneurs who don't mind breaking the law, which means they are often linked with yakuza or other organised crime. Fortunately, the police are far too busy ignoring more serious crimes to do anything about it.
North Korean ties
Another badly-kept kept secret is that the North Korean economy relies on pachinko. In 1994, Japanese police testified in court that about 30% of the pachinko industry was controlled by North Koreans. If this is true, it would account for a massive amount of the $600 million sent to the Communist state from Japan each year.
An ad for Sankyo, one of the biggest pachinko companies, featured Hollywood buffoon Nic Cage as a pachinko fanatic. With luck on his side, a player can earn more than he would in an office job. There are obvious perks: all the cigarette smoke you can inhale and your family can't find you.
However, the game can be cruel to its 30 million regular customers. In April 2002, an 11-month old baby died of dehydration on the back seat of a car. Her parents had left her there for almost 3 hours, while they played pachinko.
In 2003, a pachinko scandal forced the governor of Akita prefecture to resign. After hearing news of a serious earthquake in his region, he kept a government car waiting outside for 45 minutes while he continued his pachinko game.
"Pachinko bankruptcy" is a cliché of modern Japan and pachinko magazines usually feature prominent advertisements from "consumer credit companies". Economic stagnation hasn't helped the situation - the neon parlours offering the chance of a quick profit to the desperately optimistic.
Pachinko has a grubby image. Recently, pachinko parlours have been trying to attract Japan’s most lucrative consumer group: daft young women with more spare cash than sense. The decor is becoming "cuter", and the variety of prizes has increased to include designer goods and perfume. Girls can drag their boyfriends along and canoodle on one of the specially designed love-seats.
This game of balls and pins came out of the economic crash stronger than ever. In a recovering economy, with a broader variety of customers, pachinko's future looks as bright as its gaudy parlours.
Pachinko - Japan's National Pastime
An excellent article, focusing on pachinko's unnderworld ties and the technological side of the game.
Another entertaining article from a site packed with entertaining articles.
This site hosts the Nic Cage pachinko advert. It’s pretty funny, but if you like Nic Cage you probably shouldn’t watch it.
What do you think? Anything to add? Mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm always looking for contributions, new ideas, and interesting Japan links.