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Daniel Robson investigates pachinko

Consider the roar of a waterfall. Now replace the water with crashing metal ball bearings and turn the volume up to eleven. Congratulations! You have just imagined the deafening interior of a pachinko parlour.

Believed to have evolved from the American game Corinthian Bagatelle, introduced to Japan in the 1920s, pachinko is Japan’s favourite pastime. It’s also big business, pulling in more cash annually than the domestic car industry. It has been accused of fuelling organised crime, ruining lives, and even funding North Korea’s missile programme. But what it all boils down to is the allure of those little silver balls.

A pachinko machine resembles an upright pinball table. Insert your cash, and hundreds of ball bearings (each usually worth about 4 yen, or far less than a penny) pour into a tray in front of you, which are then fed automatically into the machine. The balls are launched into play by an automatic plunger, shooting one by one from the bottom of the machine to the top, where they then cascade at thundering velocity through clusters of pins down the screen. Most of them will fall uselessly to a hole at the bottom.

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The aim, by subtle manipulation of a throttle control, is to fire the stream of balls at just the right speed so that they will fall into designated scoring holes, triggering a slot-machine-like spin of three numbers on a digital screen behind the playfield. There then ensues an animated battle between the numbers to determine whether you’ve hit the jackpot, at which point thousands of balls drop into a rectangular bucket below your machine’s tray.

If all this makes pachinko sound like an exciting game of skill and action, think again. For all but the most seasoned pros, it’s simply a case of finding the ‘sweet spot’, or twisting the throttle to the optimum speed, and then not moving your hand again until home time, allowing your eyes to glaze over as the game plays out automatically in front of you. Newcomers may find a buzz from hitting their first jackpot, but in reality, pachinko parlours are depressing homes for motionless addicts: No number of flashing lights and brand tie-ups (Star Wars, Fist of the North Star, Kinnikuman, pop singers Koda Kumi and Hiromi Go, etc) will rouse the attention of the pachinko zombie.

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The real skill lies in knowing which machine to pick. First of all, a shindai (new machine) is most likely to pay out, as its win average slowly drives down to the standard 1 in 400. Even this average is variable, however, as the parlour staff customise the machines during their closing hours to make them harder or easier to win on. It’s a careful balance of tweaking the odds to rake in more cash without turning customers elsewhere.

As such, the pros have ways of choosing the machines most likely to pay out on any given day, and it is common to see them queuing up before a parlour opens to get their machine of choice. And since the odds are so long, you’d better be prepared to stay at one machine till closing time.

But hang on, isn’t private gambling illegal in Japan? Unlike public-run moneyholes such as lotteries and horse, bicycle and boat racing, pachinko is legally a leisure activity. So once you’ve enjoyed a run of jackpots, what are you supposed to do with your glistening buckets of winnings?

Here’s where things go grey. Officially, you trade your winnings for prizes, much like at game centres in the UK; typical items include cigarettes, stuffed toys, cosmetics, even bicycles and DVD players. But unofficially, you can simply exchange your winnings for a token, walk to a nondescript kiosk nearby and cash it in. Authorities tolerate this borderline illegal trade since the kiosk is supposedly always owned by a company separate from the pachinko parlour, and yet mysteriously those tokens end up back in the parlour of origin. According to market research firm Yano Research Institute Ltd, about 95 percent of all winnings at Japan’s 14,600 pachinko parlours are exchanged for cash.

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As you might expect, pachinko parlours tend to have links to organised crime. But you might be surprised to learn that it’s not Japan’s Yakuza that is believed to have the upper hand, but Korea’s. It has been variously reported that between 70 and 90 percent of all pachinko parlours are owned by ethnic Koreans, and ‘official’ sources report that anywhere between 3 billion and 200 billion yen (£22.7 million to £1.5 billion) flows back to North Korea annually, believed to be partly funding its controversial missile programme.

These parlour operators are not afraid to get sneaky. For one thing, they allegedly operate a ‘gambling tax’, whereby a portion of all winnings are kept by the house to pay police bribes. And they reportedly have tricks to entice newcomers, such as planting paid players at high-scoring machines; giving machines better odds on certain public holidays, when new customers are more likely to try pachinko for the first time, and worse odds on weekends, when parlours are most crowded; and adjusting the odds on a machine that is in play to make a player on a heavy losing streak win a few jackpots, to keep him coming back (this last is highly illegal and one of the few reasons a pachinko parlour might be closed by police).

And still, the Japanese love a good balls-up. According to reference site Japan Zone, the pachinko business “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 [has] 30 million regular enthusiasts coughing up more 30 trillion yen (£226.5 billion) a year.” The average pachinko punter parts with 30,000 yen (£226.50) on every visit.

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It’s not without its cultural impact, either. In the manga Bleach, Yachiru refers to Ikkaku as a “pachinko-ball head”. Also, in the anime and manga Poltergeist Report, main character Yusuke Urameshi is a pachinko addict and, at one point, misses out on a battle with one of the Seven Demons because he is in the middle of a pachinko game. And if you were to head to YouTube and search for Nicolas Cage and Sankyo, you’d find a series of somewhat disturbing ads featuring the American action hero line-dancing with bunch of pachinko-men, lusting after a woman’s earring, fantasising about triplets, and singing about the things he loves.

So, if you can reconcile with your wallet the likely loss of cash and with your conscience the likely proliferation of nuclear weapons, give pachinko a go next time you’re in Japan. But for god’s sake, don’t forget your earplugs.

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