How big is the pachinko business in Japan? Well, it employs a
third of a million people, three times more than the steel industry;
it commands 40 percent of Japan's leisure industry, including
restaurants and bars; and with almost 20 million regular enthusiasts
coughing up more ¥30 trillion a year (a higher turnover
than the car industry), it's very big business indeed. So big,
that foreign businesses are getting in on the act. While much
of the pachinko industry has long been controlled by residents
of Korean descent, in early 2001 British company BS Group bought
a stake in Tokyo Plaza, who run about 20 parlors in Japan, and have also opened parlors
in the UK. And of course these days you can play pachinko online,
though there are fewer options if you don't understand Japanese.
If you want to play pachinko, you won't have to look very hard
to find a parlor. There's usually at least one near every train
station and where there is no station (ie in the countryside)
just look out for the gariest, ugliest building you can find.
That's it - the big silver box in the middle of nowhere covered
in neon signs and flashing lights. As soon as you step up to the
electric doors and they slide open, the noise - and usually the
smell - hits you. This is not a place for casual conversation
or requests for the no-smoking section. The wall of noise might
seem unpleasant to the newcomer but it seems to help the serious
gamblers, or pachi-puro, to concentrate or perhaps to just switch off as they sit in
silence in front of their chosen machines. Sometimes they're there
all day - it's common to see people lining up outside a parlor
first thing in the morning, waiting to get the machine they think
is going to pay up and almost as common to see them come out in
the afternoon or evening having won - or lost a day's pay or more.
A typical pachinko machine. The balls are fed into the machine
using the green handle on the bottom right.
A close-up of the playing area of a digital machine. This one
is called "Go-go Akko-chan" and is named after Wada Akiko, a popular
The entrance to a small urban pachinko parlor in Saitama Prefecture.
Parlors in rural areas can be many times larger and garier. Signboards
outside announce the arrival of new machines or promo campaigns.
The first thing you do is use cash or these days increasingly
a prepaid card to buy a tray of what this game is all about -
balls. Small steel balls, resembling ball bearings, to be exact
(you can often spot the pachi-puro by the ball or ¥100 coin
forgetfully left wedged in their ear). You'll pay about ¥4
per ball and while you can buy just ¥100's worth, no serious
gambler would start by spending less than a few thousand yen.
A variation on pachinko that has become very popular recently
is pachislo, which is a combination of pachinko and slot machine
and uses coin-like coupons.
Pachinko is played on what looks like a vertical pinball machine.
The steel balls are released into the machine and fall through
a maze of nail-like pins. The idea is to get the balls to fall
into slots where they accumulate and to aim for jackpots, which
pay out thousands more balls. There are three main types of machines
with different levels of skill required. In the oldest style of
machine, the positioning of the pins greatly affected the payout
so they would be tapped into minutely different locations by specialists
each night after closing - hence the morning queues for the best
machines. These days the more popular deji-pachi (digital pachinko) machines have an LCD display in the center
showing colorful animations that indicate your jackpot, or "fever". The noisy animations often feature popular cartoon characters
or hentai (erotic) anime. Computer settings are only adjusted
every few days so the pros watch out for the big payers. The winnings
that you're aiming for are actually the same balls that you put
in, hopefully multiplied a few times. They usually have a cash
value of about ¥2.5 yen.
Though the win ratios are set by the government, parlors are believed
to often manipulate them such as by increasing jackpots on busy
days to draw people back again. On the other hand, resourceful
players resort to using ingenious electronic or magnetic devices
to try and hotwire the digital machines into making big payouts.
Parlors are not legally allowed to actually pay out cash. So you
take your trays of balls and exchange them for prizes like washing
powder, cigarettes and brand goods or tokens that can be cashed
in at a nearby hole-in-the-wall. Similar to cashing in your chips
at a casino except for the fact that it's a flagrant manipulation
of the law. These places then sell the tokens back to the parlor,
with their cut on top.
In addition to pachinko, most palors also over a range of pachislo games.
Similar to the American equivalent of slot machines, players exchange cash
for tokens which they then insert into the machine. The game starts when a
small lever is pulled, but unlike classic slot machines, you press buttons
to stop the reels, adding an element of skill to the game. With pachinko
each steel ball is the equivalent of about ¥4, whereas pachislo tokens
are valued at approximately ¥20.
The long economic downturn has not stopped people from playing
pachinko. Indeed economic desperation has forced many to turn
to gambling as a last resort. But changing attitudes and lifestyles
have eroded the customer base and forced companies to try to attract
new kinds of customers. Leading machine maker Sankyo has employed
Hollywood star Nicholas Cage to appear in a series of TV commercials
where he played a pachinko freak. Parlors with bars and cafes, women-only sections,
fountains and luxury furniture are just some of the other ideas
for bringing this Japanese way of life into the 21st century.