Pachinko: Japan’s lifesaver or time waster?

Pachinko: Japan’s lifesaver or time waster?

Borderline illegal, tacky and played by millions, the garish "national pastime" has hidden depths
A load of balls -- that's what pachinko's all about.

Perhaps it was by mistake, out of curiosity, or just to sneak in and use the restroom, but if you’ve lived in or visited Japan, it’s possible you’ve  walked into a pachinko parlor at least once.

And if so, it was surely an experience you’ve not forgotten.  

Entering one of these ubiquitous gambling establishments for the first time is like stumbling upon another dimension. A non-stop barrage of loud, futuristic zaps and pings greets you through a fluorescent haze, fogged with clouds of cigarette smoke.

Narrow isles are lined with row after row of near-identical game machines that players sit facing, side-by-side and back-to-back for hours on end, hoping to cash in on a jackpot based on a final sum of miniature silver steel pinballs.

Getting lucky

The balls are first purchased with cash, dumped in bulk into the machine and jetted about at various levels of velocity as adjusted by the player via a hand dial.

They tumble downward and, if lucky, enter payout gates along the way before eventually disappearing into a hole at the bottom.

PachinkoIn truth, pachinko is far closer to being Japan's national pastime than anything more "traditional."

Thousands of pachinko parlors countrywide all share this distinct atmosphere -- one that will immediately test any newcomer’s senses to the limits.

For an industry with a turnover, at least in 2005, of ¥29 trillion ($380 billion) a year, pachinko also sails surprisingly close to the wind.

While it's technically illegal to gamble on most things in Japan, pachinko skirts the law by paying out in balls, which are exchanged on site for small golden tokens.

It's only after visiting an off-site kiosk, called a TUC Shop in Japanese, that winners can swap the tokens for hard cash.

This somewhat challenging setting, along with other negative connotations (such as purported ties to the Japanese mafia, or yakuza, and the tendency to become destructively addictive for some), have made some Japanese non-enthusiasts look upon pachinko in a very dim light indeed.

Following the call to conserve electricity after March 11, one particular non-enthusiast, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, announced that pachinko parlors should limit their business hours to the middle of the night.

He suggested that it was “ridiculous” that the sum of electrical power for pachinko parlors and vending machines in the metropolis alone can reach up to 10 million kilowatts at certain peak times.

But could such a drastic solution be viable? Is pachinko an industry that can simply have its operating hours slashed without consequence? And might the game provide something more for Japanese people than it gets credit for?

Pressure release

Yuko Masaki lives on Awaji Island in midwestern Japan, where she’s been the primary caregiver for her 61-year-old husband since he suffered a stroke in 2007.

His limited motor skills have made him nearly entirely bedridden and his mental health is on an unstoppable gradual decline.

Despite her positive outlook on the situation and stubborn resolution not to send him to outside care, her own doctor has now suggested that various physical ailments -- including a persistent stomach ache -- she’s started to experience over the past year may be rooted in the physical and emotional toll her husband’s illness and deterioration has taken on her.

But last year, 51-year-old Masaki started play pachinko with her 23-year-old son, who came to live at home for a few months after graduating college. Despite having some preconceptions in the beginning, they soon formed a habit of going together at least two or three times a week.

PachinkoWinners all -- the early bird gets the worm, or at least the choice of the best machines.

“I was embarrassed at first, but when I started to go, I noticed there were many other women there,” she recalls. “And unlike pachiko parlors in the past, the ones you see now are clean and modern. The ceilings are high and the bathrooms are clean.”

Her son has since moved out, but Masaki continues to play pachinko by herself at least once a week for up to five hours at a time and credits the game with allowing her to escape the stresses of her everyday life.

“Everyone’s heard the bad stories, you know, about how some people get addicted and get into debt and destroy their households, but they’re really one in a thousand,” she says.

“For me it relieves stress. When I am facing the pachinko machine, nothing else matters. It’s a complete escape. I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself.”

More women playing

Yuki Washida is a long-term Tokyo resident who works in the fashion retail industry. Having avidly played pachinko for 10 years, winning up to ¥130,000 on a good day, the 34-year-old echoes Masaki’s observations of an increasingly female-friendly pachinko culture that has helped her feel at home in the parlors.

“There seem to be more young females playing now ... a lot of sharp-looking career women or office ladies on their way home from work,” she says.

She adds that it seems pachinko today is equally accessible to men and women, and that its players also range widely in age, from 18 to 80.

Washida feels that Governor Ishihara -- who she points out has stated he wants to develop a casino industry in Japan -- wasn’t considering all of the people who earn their livelihoods through the pachinko industry, when he targeted the industry following the March 11 disaster.

In fact, following the earthquake and tsunami, Washida says she felt she ought to increase her pachinko playing as part of her personal responsibility to keep the country’s economy “moving.” Her husband, a graphic designer, works on pachinko industry magazines from time to time.

By the numbers

In May 2011 a government survey of 291 pachinko parlors in Japan showed they had amassed profits totaling ¥74,767 million per month, while employing 7,535 workers (3,604 full-time and 3,931 part-time).

Meanwhile, the Japanese government estimated in 2005 that the annual turnover of the pachinko industry was ¥29 trillion (approximately US$300 billion) -- about twice that of the nation's automobile industry at the time.

“Kouta” is a 46-year-old researcher for the Japan Rail Corporation who lives and works in Tokyo and plays pachinko about once a month for a couple hours to kill time between meetings in the city.

PachinkoPachinko and its garish image are so frowned on, new parlors are barred from operating in certain "protected" areas.

He doesn’t feel ashamed to do it, but knows there are widespread rumors that since North Korean companies support the industry, some profits are syphoned off to the hermit state.

“So it’s kind of a shady, dark business in some ways in terms of perception, compared to, say, publicly owned and government-managed horse racing,” he explains.

The CEO of a train-parts manufacturing company, 48-year-old Toshihiro Shibata lives with his family in Yamaguchi Prefecture. He doesn’t hold back when it comes to Tokyo’s governor and his condemnation of the industry.

“What Ishihara says is just political jargon or personal opinion,” he says. “The pachinko industry’s owners are up to 90 percent Korean and some of the profits are going to Korea, a country he hates in particular. So he has a personal vendetta against pachinko.”

Shibata, who’s played pachinko off and on since he was 19, doesn’t think the industry should be looked down upon.

“If it was that bad it would’ve gone away a long time ago. But it’s been around and persevered for decades, which means something,” he says.

He also asserts that pachinko parlors -- the Japanese equivalent to casinos in other parts of the world -- are enjoyed by bored retirees and people looking for easy and convenient forms of stress relief.

Mixed feelings

Washida also sees the cathartic aspects of pachinko for herself and others: “It’s totally stress-relieving. When I play, I don’t have to think about anything.”

She’s noticed over the years that she goes to the parlor significantly more when she’s busy and stressed at work.

Yet, in the end, despite it offering such benefits, having economic significance and being an entirely unique activity to the country, most Japanese don’t seem willing to embrace pachinko as a national tradition.

In fact, most laugh or scoff at such an idea.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t feel at all sad to see it all go. If you take out all the people whose livelihoods depend on it, I personally wouldn't feel sad. And I’ve never thought of it as a valuable part of Japanese culture,” says Washida.

“It’s a strange thing, isn’t it? Just all these machines, the strange similar machines, all lined up in rows. Yeah, I can’t say I’d feel anything if they all just disappeared.”

Ulara Nakagawa is a Canadian-born editor and writer who's been in Tokyo since 2007. She also regularly blogs at The New Emissary and is always on the look-out for a good story.
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