Japanese Gambling

Betting in Japan

Betting in Japan

Nik Yasko looks at the Japanese betting landscape.

Compare the odds on

Horse racing (keiba)

The federal government, through an organization called the Japan Racing Association, operates all major horse racing in Japan. This federal control guarantees a certain amount of efficiency, but it also means that the JRA tracks themselves are gargantuan and impersonal structures lacking in charm, that the betting system is needlessly complicated, and that few interesting foreign horses compete here due to stubbornly protectionist rules - rules that also serve to keep the quality of racing from rising to a higher level.

Horse racing in Japan.
Horse racing at Niigata Race Course

Local governments run non-JRA tracks throughout the country - there are 24 of them - but the quality of racing prevents these local venues from being a viable option for serious gamblers. Many of them are interesting to see at least once if only because the seedy, post-war Japan feel that transports you instantly to the year 1958. And unlike their JRA counterparts, the local tracks run on weekdays, usually at night. Sounds great, right? The problem is the abysmal level of racing. Most of the local horses look suspiciously like soon-to-be basashi, and move about as quickly. Admittedly, it is at first a lark to bet on Arabians and other non-thoroughbreds, but after a while betting at these local venues becomes too much like playing the lottery.

Japan Racing Association (JRA).

For anyone wanting to play the ponies seriously, JRA racing is the only option. The JRA operates two tracks in Hokkaido, one in Kyushu, two in the Kansai area, three in the Tokyo area, and two in northern Honshu. If there is no JRA track near, seek out one of the JRA's many off-track betting facilities, called WINS (another mysterious Japanese acronym). If reading kanji is not a problem, a great way to beat the crowds is to get a JRA on-line account, watch the races on TV and bet using cell phones or on the Net.

And there are crowds. Horse racing in this country is hugely popular and crowds of well over one hundred thousand routinely turn up for big races. All the GI races are big news, and make good fodder for conversation with sporting-minded colleagues, although caution is recommended. Despite the massive popularity of horse racing, openly reading the keiba section of a sports daily is seen as a sign of immorality and lack of seriousness at some work places. It's fine for some aged pensioner to check the stats of his favorite horse in some public place, but it's still taboo for Mr. Average.

Japan Racing Association Logo.

But never mind about the social aspect. Horse racing is a sport specifically designed with gambling in mind. In Japan it is no different, and there is opportunity to make money here. Since so few foreign jockeys or horses compete in this country, betting on outsiders can create interesting opportunities. Japanese bettors have a tendency to either scoff at foreign-breds, which are marked in the newspaper with the Chinese character for "foreign," or to overestimate the impact of "gaijin power." Occasionally, foreign jockeys are granted short-term licenses, and they usually perform well. This writer once won a million yen simply by boxing two lightly regarded foreign-bred horses with a horse ridden by a skilled foreign jockey.

Adding to the fun, there are now more types of exotic bets, including trifectas, perfectas, and a fun variation of the quinella, called the "wide," which pays when selected horses come in first and second, first and third, or second and third. This is a good option for those who like to box three horses, since you never have to bet against yourself. For those who have trouble with Chinese characters, try the betting instructions on the JRA English website.

Let's sum up: On the positive side, JRA races have lots of weekend action for the hard-core gambler. Information is everywhere, and research is as easy as talking about horses with a friend. Even though public admission of gambling is taboo, the likelihood of finding a keiba - savvy friend or colleague is high. People stuck out in the country can gamble on-line, over the telephone, or search out the nearest off-track betting facility.

The Lottery (takarakuji)

New Year's Jumbo Lottery Ticket.

As in horse racing, the lottery system has been liberalized over the last ten years. To play the big "jumbo" lotteries of the past, punters were forced to first get their hands on coupons usually issued at department stores giving the holder the right to buy the actual lottery tickets. Westerners lined up to buy tickets in the old days could be sure that some security guard would come up and ask to see the coupons. These days, at last, we can purchase lottery tickets directly, but only at sanctioned lottery booths. These are found near most sizable train stations, and often in front of department stores.

The jumbo lotteries usually offer a grand prize totaling about one billion yen. Numbers are printed on tickets, and these tickets are then sold to the public. Jumbo lottery tickets sell for three hundred yen apiece. Customers have the option of buying either consecutively or randomly numbered tickets. The same system is used for the hyaku-en kuji (one-hundred yen lottery), which is offered locally and more often, but for lesser prize money. When buying tickets for these games, the customer has only to name the lottery and the number of tickets wanted, and whether he or she wants consecutive numbers (renban), or random (bara).

Other games available are in keeping with those found in Western nations: scratch-offs, daily pick threes and fours, and weekly pick sixes. The pick six game is fun, although players are forced to mark a card before making a bet. In a rare departure from form, the odds of winning (although not the percentage of the take returned to the public) are written on the back of the pick six, three and four betting slips. There is also a quick-pick option that lets the computer pick the numbers. The prizes here depend on the amount of money in the pool. If there is no winner of the pick six grand prize, the money is carried over to the following week. In this way, some of the bigger prizes can begin to rival American lottery jackpots.

One of the attractive aspects of the Japanese lottery, aside from the fact that it is totally tax-free, is that in the unlikely event of hitting a jackpot, nobody else has to know about it. There is no obligation to come forward. The lottery association simply places some obscene amount of money in the winner's bank account, and that's it. Of course, tales are told of how someone always finds about the big lottery winner, who is then harassed by lowlifes, suddenly friendly relatives, or both.


 A garish Pachinko machine in Japan.

Pachinko is unique because the government does not control it. The government tries to police it only by trying to tax pachinko parlor owners. It is technically illegal for pachinko parlors to hand out money directly to patrons, so they hand out tokens instead, which can be redeemed for cash at nearby cashing stations outside the shop, run by a separate token-redeeming business. Each pachinko parlor sets its own machines any way its likes, although most conform to the industry standard. The word on the street is that the industry standard is roku wari gaeshi, or a sixty percent return. Compare that to an over ninety percent return rate on most Las Vegas slots, and you get a pretty good idea of just how bad a gamble this game is.

Still, it is a mesmerizing activity that promises nightly amusement to those without a social life. In Japanese films and television dramas, scenes of some exhausted husband going out to play the game often follow scenes of domestic spats. Because pachinko requires a considerable investment of time, beleaguered salarymen can use the game to run from family responsibilities, demanding girlfriends, the bullying section chief, the kids who refuse to go to school, and the wife who finds pleasure in a different game. In other words, the escape pachinko offers has untold appeal.

And the off-putting, miserable environment of the average pachinko parlor makes most salarymen feel right at home. Housewives and blue-collar workers may complain about the conditions of the shop, but not the man who works in an office. Mr. White Collar loves this stuff. And because playing pachinko is physically grueling, salarymen feel less guilty if they win. After all, they have worked hard for their winnings.

Pachinko is unique because winning, or even dreams of winning, is not really what pachinko is all about. That is why, of all forms of gambling in Japan, none is so quintessentially Japanese as pachinko. What repels foreigners is the noise, the unnecessary steps involving steel balls and plastic boxes, the smoke, the constant barking by attendants, the act of staring for hours into a machine at clicking ball bearings - these being the very things that attract the (predominantly male) Japanese customer.

60% OFF Try the Japanese entertainment "Pachinko" in Tokyo!

Horse racing is a weekend activity, and it attracts people who want to make money. Toto and the lottery offer a chance to dream about that one big score. Pachinko parlors are open every day, offering a long vista of lonely gambling sessions to the escapist, the masochist and the loner in each player. Judging by the enduring popularity of the game, there is a lot to appeal to.

Read more on Pachinko


There are no legal casinos in existence at the moment, though Tokyo's ultra right-wing governor Shintaro Ishihara has been pushing them for years. If Governor Ishihara is ever successful, we can easily imagine a Japanese-run casino: Roulette players allowed to bet only after marking their numbers on a card and giving it to a bureaucrat to stamp, sports betting allowed only after signing a declaration of belief in superiority of Japanese national teams, etc.

Bicycle Racing (keirin)

The bicycle racing gambling system was always years ahead of horse racing and keirin does seem to have a devoted fan base. Keirin is a homegrown sport that began very shortly after the end of World World 2. It involves a group of cyclists doing several laps of the course following, and paced by, a motorcycle. The pacer pulls away several hundred meters before the finish line allowing the riders to sprint for it. Keirin was devised expressly for the purpose of gambling, but had sporting legitimacy conferred upon it in 2000 when it became an Olympic event in the Sydney games that year.

Toto - J-League Soccer Pools

Toto Soccer Betting Symbol.

Soccer gambling on Japanese professional soccer - J.League - comes packaged in a system called "Toto," and, like the lottery, it is possible to buy Toto tickets only at sanctioned Toto booths, which are much more scarce than lottery booths, and found in strange places like electronics stores and used car lots. The advantage to the Toto system is that people who want to play don't really have to know anything about the sport. The sports dailies usually offer their picks, although randomly picking the winners seems to be just as effective as researching who is going to win.
Still, if you're going to play the lottery, you may as well play the lottery.


This is interesting. Mahjong Japan style has a culture all its own, and appears to attract some really high rollers. Unfortunately, this writer spent years researching the ins and outs of pachinko, and as a result has really nothing to say about this game. Like pachinko, it's only a semi-legal form of gambling. Like pachinko, there are people who make a living at it. Apparently, you have to have some brains to play it well.

Boat Racing (kyotei or Boat Race)

Government-sponsored motorboat (hydroplane) gambling has been a fixture of Japan's gambling scene since 1952 when it was introduced from the United States. Instigated by the ultra-nationalist industrialist Ryoichi Sasakawa (1899-1995) who pulled strings at the official level, what since 1980 has been known as "Boat Race" was designed specifically for betting, with all proceeds being disbursed by the Sasakawa-founded Nippon Foundation for philanthropic causes. There are now over 20 venues in Japan including Edogawa in Tokyo. Parimutuel betting is legal at the course. Six speed boats race three laps around the 600m course and both male and female riders take part. Racers are assigned a boat at random on race day. Bets include predicting the winner, 2 out of the top 3 or the an exact combination of the top 3 finishers.

Nik Yasko

The views expressed are solely those of the author.

Read more about gambling in Japan.

Books on Japan & Japanese Culture