Pachinko Parlors

Gambling in Japan: Pachinko パチンコ

Nik Yasko examines Japan's popular punt

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Pachinko parlor, Namba, Osaka.

Commonly mistranslated as 'vertical pinball,' pachinko is a noisy, smoky, time-consuming, and hypnotic form of gambling that plays a huge part in the Japanese economy.

Newcomers to Japan often ask just what those garishly lit, cheaply built buildings with names like Stardust, Paradise, and Omega are. Churches? Banks? No, they are pachinko halls, an integral feature of the Japanese cityscape.

How to play pachinko

In pachinko, small steel balls, much smaller than those found in an ordinary pinball machine, are shot into a vertical playing field by gripping a knob on the lower right hand corner of the machine. If a ball enters the 'start' hole in the center of the field, it activates a drum, much like the drum on a slot machine. As recently as ten years ago, the majority of machines had revolving drums, but most machines now have animated screens instead.

When two symbols on the drum or screen match, a player has a chance of winning: called a 'reach'. The goal is to match three symbols. When this happens, thousands of steel balls come tumbling out into a well at the base of the machine. The player then empties the well into a plastic box on the ledge beneath. The boxes are just big enough to hold the number (usually 4,000) of balls that emit from one win.

During wins the lamp at the top of the machine starts flashing, and the 'song' of the machine changes, as does the screen in the middle. For example, if the symbols on the drum are sexy animated women, the main character may start to remove her clothes. The recent trend, however, is away from sexy and toward cute.

Adorable dinosaurs, little baseball players, and saucer-eyed jungle adventurers are becoming more common than alluring women - perhaps because women make up a much larger percentage of pachinko customers than in decades past.

Rush hour at a pachinko parlor, Tokyo.
Eyes down for pachinko in Tokyo

Pachinko - Government-tolerated

Horse, bicycle and boat racing, pachinko's more 'legitimate' cousins in the Japanese gambling family, are government-operated, but pachinko is only government-tolerated. It has long been considered a dirty business, and so run by those on the edge of society. For this reason, Korean ownership of pachinko parlors is common. Some Japan observers claim that pachinko profits are often funneled into the coffers of the North Korean government, and perhaps this is so, but a more pressing question might be just why it is that this niche in Japanese society continues to be filled by Koreans.

Police often check pachinko machines to make sure that customers are not being cheated. They are also interested in ensuring that shop owners do not cheat on their taxes by under-reporting the amount of money taken in each day. One way the police do this is to demand that shops do away with machines that accept cash directly. In the early 90s, machines that take a pre-paid card instead of cash became the norm.

Called 'CR' machines, they usually have animated screens instead of physical drums, and are much more of a high-risk high-return proposition than the older type. A player who hits the jackpot on a CR machine can earn as much as 200,000 yen in a single day. On the other hand, 10,000 yen will disappear in about forty minutes of non-winning play on a typical CR machine.

Pachinko Pros

Still, there are 'pachinko pros,' people who make their living playing the game. They usually do this by attending the grand opening of new shops, or by going to older shops whenever a new type of machine is put in. Recent media reports have it that, in order not to create an image of a nation of gambling addicts in the minds of foreign observers, pachinko parlor owners heeded government requests to refrain from installing new machines during the World Cup year. Even so, pachinko attendance is not likely to have fallen much; it is simply far too popular a game.

Pachinko machine.

Since pachinko is not government-operated, customer service varies greatly from one parlor to another. Some pass out candy to customers, keep everything clean, and instruct attendants to be polite and helpful to customers. Some shops have ledges overhead filled with the empty plastic boxes one uses to hold balls in.

In most places once a box is filled an attendant will come round, give the player a new box, and place the full one on the floor. This is very important, because a full box often needs to be placed on the floor while a player is still in the middle of a winning period and cannot let go of the knob.

Fast players can let go of the knob, pick up the box, swivel around and place it on the floor (perhaps balancing it on several other already full boxes), turn back round, grab the knob and begin shooting - all in one fluid motion and without causing the winning streak to end prematurely (known as a punku, from the Japanese transliteration of 'puncture').

But one has to play for a while in order to get that good; so in the beginning it is best to go to a shop whose attendants come round quickly and with a smile on their face. Generally speaking, if foreigners are playing it will be assumed that they do not know what they are doing anyway, and so the attendants will keep a careful eye on them and be ready with an empty box if the need should arise.

Winning at pachinko

At no pachinko parlor does one receive cash directly for one's balls. The metal balls are first exchanged at the counter for some sort of token which vary in form from parlor to parlor, then there's a walk outside, usually to a small shed very near the main building.

Other winners will be lined up waiting to hand their tokens in at a small hole in the wall of the shed. A hand emerges from the hole, takes the tokens, and returns cash. All this may have an attractive, speak-easy feel to it for Westerners, but sometimes the exchange box can be over a block away, or on a higher floor of an adjacent building, so winning players must listen carefully to the directions.

Pachinko parlors do not always show human beings at their best. Angry customers swear, or sometimes even punch the machines, and there is nothing quite like the expression on some bitter salaryman's face when the shop closes and he realizes that he has blown tens of thousands of yen that day.

Pachinko & social problems

Perhaps the most depressing sight at pachinko, rarely seen now but not uncommon ten years ago, is that of a mother cradling her baby in one hand and shooting pachinko balls with the other. Or of little children, coatless in the winter but still running in and out of the shop to play in the parking lot while their mother mindlessly shoots little metal balls into space.

In the late 90s, there were several highly publicized cases of children dying, suffocating in their cars while their mothers played pachinko. These stories received a lot of press, and pressure was put on the pachinko industry to prohibit children from entering shops. Many pachinko shops put up posters of a wide-eyed child saying, 'Mom, don't forget about me.'

Currently, most pachinko parlors have signs reading 'No children allowed', but one wonders what the children are doing while mom is busy spending (usually) salaryman dad's wages. Pachinko is an equal opportunity vice. In fact, housewives are frequent targets of pachinko advertising campaigns since they often have more time and money to spend on pachinko than their husbands do. 'Ladies day' campaigns are common, with some shops going so far as to have 'women only' machines. Traditionally, Japanese wives control household finances, and are less likely to have daytime employment. Thus the number of women in a pachinko parlor, especially during the day, often surpasses that of men.

Pachinko demands time

More than money, perhaps, pachinko demands time. The pace of the game is much slower than a Las Vegas slot machine, although modern pachinko machines are very much like Vegas slots in terms of payoffs being based on the random calculations of a computer. But if one goes to the same pachinko shop every day one will see that patterns emerge, and that these patterns are based on time.

A certain type of machine may not pay anything during the day, but may pay out furiously at night, beginning just at five. Some banks of machines may pay out just before closing. To discover these patterns takes money, time and patience. Pachinko, then, is not a game where one can saunter up to any open machine in any old shop and hope for a good payout. Repeatedly returning to the same shop because it is 'due' is a sure road to pachinko disaster.

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