What Is Pachinko?
Pachinko is like a vertical pinball game. Learn more about this Japanese game.
As you leave the station and the noise of the train dies away, another sound takes its place - loud and discordant, a fairground-like din entices you to investigate and you stumble over a pachinko parlour.
Pachinko is like a vertical pinball game. The board, only 50cm wide, is covered with a pattern of pins, obstacles and holes. Small 11mm steel balls are dropped in and bounce around. Winnings can be converted into cash or prizes such as cigarettes, chocolates, instant noodles, toilet paper and so on. Because of restrictions on gambling, anyone who wants to exchange winnings for cash must do so at a money exchange venue outside the building while goods and more balls can be received inside.
Pachinko parlours began in post-war Nagoya and there are now over 18,000 pachinko parlours in Japan. With the huge access to these parlours, gambling is becoming a problem. Those who are addicted suffer all the same symptoms of someone who plays poker or bets on horses all the time and social problems are caused because of this. As we move into the next century though, pachinko parlours are becoming less of a carnival and more of a night out.
In the early 1900s, a pachinko-like game of balls dropping into differently scored holes was developed and became popular throughout many areas of Japan. This game along with a similar American game which had been brought in, combined to form the first pachinko. Prior to the Second World War, the game was stopped and not resurrected until 1946 in Nagoya when the vertical version of the game began. The prizes at that time were small luxury items not readily available and ensured pachinko's popularity. The introduction of computer-run pachinko in the late 1980s has made the game irresistible in this high-tech world and now even the balls are released electronically. Many parlours have information booths detailing which machines have done what in the last 24 hours and it is also now possible to play pachinko on the Internet.
While Tokyo has the greatest number of parlours, Nagoya is still considered the pachinko centre because of Takeichi Masamura who is considered the father of pachinko thanks to his creation and maintenance of early pachinko machines and halls. In fact, Nagoya even has a pachinko museum where you can see early versions of the machines and learn about the history.
The word 'pachinko' comes from the onomatopoeic word 'pachin' which sounds like the noise the balls make when they fall.
Two thirds of Japanese parlours are run by Korean descended Japanese who send money back to Korea. The other third are run by Chinese or Japanese. The one thing that stands out most about pachinko parlours is the noise! You can recognise it right away - the endless pinging of the metal balls bouncing around and the Nintendo music! You'll need your earplugs as it even drowns out the sound of traffic from outside.
Another thing you'll notice are the bright neon lights which make the venue look like a huge Las Vegas supermarket. The third is the huge carparks that are next to the venue - unmistakable, particularly in Japan where space is always at a premium.
The tax dodge
28% of all Japanese adults (40% of males) spend some of their leisure time playing pachinko and the annual earnings for the industry are over 30.4 trillion yen. It is estimated that this is only half the actual figure which makes this a haven for tax evasion and skimming. However, the parlours are now becoming more responsible and accountable for their activities and towards their customers.
So why is pachinko so popular? As a pass time it is easily accessible to most people and inexpensive and there is always the chance for a win. That makes it irresistible. Gradually though, the older style parlours are being replaced by something new - plushly appointed parlours that provide 'couple seats', attendants, stylish surroundings and slick advertising. Will these changes change the true charm of the more traditional parlours or is this simply a way of bringing pachinko into a new era?