Japan's National Pastime: Pachinko

Origami or flower-arranging? karate or karaoke? None of the above - it's pachinko.

Listen to the real sounds of pachinko

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Will Yong tries a whole new ball game

A garish Pachinko machine.

Mount Fuji's peak may not peep out from behind the clouds and you may not glimpse a geisha, but one thing you will not miss in Japan is the sight of a garish pachinko parlor.

Not least because of the sheer visual assault. Round the corner in just about any town in Japan larger than a rural hamlet and you'll see one.

All restraint is thrown to the wind when it comes to pachinko parlor design. No colour remains un-fluoresced, no opportunity to flash and twinkle is passed up. Temples, shrines, palaces and castles were once Japan's most eye-catching buildings. Now they are most definitely pachinko parlors.

It is estimated that one-quarter of Japan's over-18 population of approximately 100 million plays pachinko at least occasionally, and that up to 30 million people play pachinko regularly.

In 1999 the pachinko industry was worth a staggering 30 trillion yen - more than the Japanese motor industry - and the current recession doesn't seem to be affecting pachinko's prospects. Pachinko is unquestionably Japan's number one leisure activity.

Rush hour at a pachinko parlor, Tokyo.

Rush hour at a pachinko parlor near you

Pachinko: Get your bearings

Here's how it works: ball bearings are bought for cash which are shot up a nail-studded board - superficially like pinball but vertical. They bounce around on the way down with about 1 in 10 hitting the winning slots. These days, balls which fall into the winning holes set a computerized slot machine spinning and three of a kind means a jackpot of - you guessed it - more balls.

The point of this seemingly mindless activity is, of course, gambling. However gambling is illegal in Japan. How then is this paradox solved? In pachinko parlours you receive 'gifts', not money, in return for your balls. Cheap tie pins, cigarette lighter flints and chocolate are all par for the course. Not much for your money you might think - especially when it's quite easy for 40 minutes of play to cost 10,000 yen (about US$90). But it doesn't end there. If you're 'lucky' enough to get a piece of gold coloured plastic embedded with a fake pearl, take your 'prize' to a more or less conveniently located 'used goods store' - no more than a booth with a hole in the wall - and they will 'buy' it from you for cash. Though officially nothing at all to do with the pachinko parlor, the used goods store then sells your 'used goods' back to the pachinko parlour where you, quite legally, won them. Voila! A game of chance with cash rewards that is categorically not gambling!

Bright lights, big money

Inhabiting such a legal gray area, the pachinko industry abounds with shady dealings. The disreputable nature of the industry has left the running of pachinko parlors largely to ethnic Koreans, and many believe that large sums of pachinko money are funneled into Communist North Korea. Some even say that pachinko profits fund North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The police, ostensibly to crack down on this kind of corruption, took the opportunity to cut themselves a piece of the pachinko pie. By instituting regulations to ensure that the most popular machines can only be played with pre-paid cards rather than cash, they have entered into a cosy relationship with card-producers. As a matter of course, retired police officers get highly paid jobs with the companies which profit from selling cards to pachinko parlors.

And don't think that Japan's organized crime syndicates, the yakuza, haven't got their share of the pachinko racket. Young hackers have been happy to sell card-fiddling technology to gangsters who simply cashed faked cards for balls and then balls for cash without any of the intervening pachinko in between. While the battle to divvy up the spoils rages on, the only losers seem to be the players themselves. The plight of pachinko addicts is well publicized, and with the increasing number of women playing the game the stories usually focus on mothers neglecting their children in favor of pachinko, and others who turn to prostitution to fuel their habits.

Certainly, the abiding image of pachinko is not glowing with wholesomeness. What comes to mind is rows of wide-eyed automatons sitting motionless in front of garish plastic consoles, surrounded by the din of pumping techno music and clouds of cigarette smoke - not the kind of place you'd want to be taken on a date. Or is it?

A whole new ball game

Pachinko balls!

In recent years, stories about grannies selling their souls to buy ball bearings have been outnumbered by those telling of a new trend in the industry.

Pachinko innovators have been working hard to rid the game of its grubby image - chiefly, by making the game more female friendly. One glitzy fashion mall in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district has converted six of its eight floors to pachinko heaven with stylish attendants, prize counters resembling exclusive boutiques and even 'love seats' for couples. An establishment in the Ginza area not only has women-only days and women-only rooms, but also aims for the largest sector of the female market - housewives over the age of 40 - by giving away household items such as steam irons and pans as prizes.

Already, pachinko winnings can be saved in electronic form and accessed through terminals that not only serve as 'ball banks' but also spew out bus and train timetables, bar and restaurant listings, discount shinkansen (i.e. bullet train) tickets and sales catalogues - and there are no plans to stop there.

Once you can book medical examinations, golfing weekends, plane tickets - even weddings and funerals - through your pachinko membership card, what's to stop pachinko becoming the focus of a new society? At least one industry visionary envisages 'pinball savings' becoming a kind of electronic currency and pachinko parlors becoming the centers of new urban communities. But however viable this brave new world is, one thing seems clear: the future of pachinko - just like the parlors themselves - is dazzling.

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