JAPAN: Culture (Japan’s Pachinko Addiction)

Traveling through Tokyo on the shinkansen (bullet train) and gazing out at the scenery, I couldn’t help but notice how widespread pachinko parlors were in Japan.

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Pachinko is a type of mechanical game resembling a vertical pinball machine that originated in Japan.  The player gets a number of balls by inserting cash or cards directly into the machine. The balls are then shot into the machine by pulling a lever once for each launch from a ball tray. The balls then fall vertically through an array of pins, levers, cups, traps and various obstacles until they reach the bottom of the machine screen. The player has a chance to get more balls to play with if one of the launched balls hit a certain place during the fall through the pachinko machine. The object of the game is to capture as many balls as possible thus remaining in the game longer and increasing your winning odds.

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Sankyo mechanical pachinko machine

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Modern Sankyo pachinko machine

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The arcades and the machines have evolved over the years where the machines now resemble video slot machines and the parlors are more like casinos. For some, pachinko is a recreational arcade game and for many it is a form of gambling. Gambling for cash is illegal in Japan, therefore the balls are exchanged for prizes such as t-shirts, pens, cigarette lighters, perfume, cosmetics, candy or coupons to a nearby grocery store at the pachinko parlor. However, you can also elect to take a voucher which in turn can be exchanged for cash at “exchange centers” distinctly separate from the parlor.

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Exchange Center

At any given time, you can wonder into a pachinko parlor and find players of all ages and backgrounds transfixed on their machines which pack the narrow aisles. It is estimated that one-quarter of Japan’s over-18 population of approximately 100 million plays pachinko at least occasionally and up to 30 million people play pachinko regularly.

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

The first pachinko machines appeared in the 1920s as a children’s game called “Korinto Gemu.”  It wasn’t until the 1930s that they emerged as an adult pastime in Nagoya. During WWII, all of the pachinko parlors in Japan were shut down but re-opened in the late 1940s and the industry has been growing strong ever since.

In the early days, Nishijin and Sankyo were the main manufacturers of pachinko machines.  Today, the Heiwa Corporation, established in Kiryu, Gunma in 1949 is the world’s largest privately owned manufacturer of pachinko and pachislot machines.

So does Japan have a massive gambling habit?  Why not visit a pachinko parlor during your next trip and make that determination for yourself! Also, keep in mind that the Japanese prefer to call it gaming rather than gambling!

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Advertising the opening of a new pachinko center

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