A Cultural Exploration of Japan’s Game of Chance
This paper and accompanying video detail my explorations into the game of pachinko, which was invented and popularized in Japan. As a western foreigner who has lived in Japan for six years, I had never before played the game, and I entered this project with very few expectations besides my own general disinterest in gambling. What I found is a complex and odd game that is ambiguously accepted in society, and profits off of those who may seek respite from the oppressing burdens of daily life.
The game is difficult to describe without visuals, so I have also made an accompanying video that shows what the game looks and sounds like, as well as few of my own conclusions from this paper.
Pachinko is a game of chance, similar to slot machines and other gambling devices. While gambling is illegal in Japan, pachinko exists within a grey area straddling legality and illegality. The popularity and sheer ubiquity of the game cannot be underestimated – the industry had receipts of 230 billion US dollars in 2008. more than the entire revenues of the Japanese domestic car market (Takiguchi & Rosenthal, 2011). Pachinko halls, “parlors” as they are called, can be seen in nearly every city and town of reasonable size, with over 18,000 scattered across the country (Thompson, Tanioka & Fujimoto, 2005).
I have never been interested in pachinko, and I feel that is the case among many Japanese as well. At first glance, it seems like an utterly pointless activity, and I’ve never felt any urge to take it up. A Japanese friend of mine, a university professor, once told me that he felt that Japanese pachinko players were part of a different subculture, one that he didn’t belong to and didn’t understand. He only sought out pachinko parlors because of their free and spotlessly clean restrooms. This seems to ring true for me as well. How, in six years, could I never had have a real opportunity to play within my social circles of foreign friends and Japanese teachers? But I also knew that pachinko has an appeal that lures many into the parlors, where they spend hour upon hour of their day slowly losing money inside of a bright, smoke-filled, noisy room full of strangers.
Learning to Play
As I set out to play pachinko, I knew I needed a guide. Over the years, one teacher I have worked with has jokingly invited me to play with him. I had never seriously considered it, and even he was surprised when I walked up to him and suggested we finally go play. Through one session with him, two by myself, and one interview with a pachinko parlor manager, I came to a better understanding of the game.
Pachinko is not viewed favorably by the Japanese public, and the industry spends heavily on maintaining its image, and on creating an image of amusement and fun, rather than gambling and risk. So it was not surprising that my friend suggested that we drive 40 minutes to the nearby city to play, rather than doing so in our small town, where parents, students, and other community members may see us.
We visited a large pachinko parlor that is part of a national chain of 270 parlors. These large chains have huge halls, with bright neon lights and massive parking lots. Often they are the largest buildings in the area. This parlor is one-story, with high, 30-foot ceilings. Inside, there are six aisles running the length of the hall, each lined with soft black chairs. The two aisles on the left have the 1-yen pachinko machines, with 4-yen machines taking up the next two. 10-yen slot machines occupy the final two rows. Each aisle contains 80 seats, for 480 seats in the entire establishment.
Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was the noise and the cigarette smoke. There was a constant, thrumming din of clattering balls, ringing bells, and alarms, like an electronic waterfall. We walked up to a kiosk that looked like a change machine and I put in a 10,000 yen (about 100 dollars) note, and received an electronic card. With the card in hand, we went and found two open machines in the 1 yen pachinko aisle and sat down.
Each pachinko machine has a theme – mine was an undersea theme with different sea creatures that came across an LCD screen in the center of the machine. The game machine itself is a combination of physical, pinball-like levers and chutes, and a screen game that can cause these levers to act in different ways. For example, if the types of fish on the screen will line up in the right order, this can cause all of your balls to be worth double, or triple, etc.\
The basic premise of pachinko is that you put money into the game machine, and it shoots out balls, which fall down vertically through a maze of metal pegs. You control the velocity of these shooting balls with a dial in your right hand. If you shoot them too weakly, or too far, they won’t fall in the right place. Once I found the “sweet spot,” I didn’t move my hand at all. After 30 minutes, I began to appreciate the rubber handrest underneath the dial.
I chose to first use 200 yen, which is 200 balls. Somehow, I got lucky and the game started multiplying the points I was getting for balls, which then gave me more balls, and so on. Some people around me looked my direction and told me I was lucky. I was still embarrassed to even be there, as pachinko is something that is hardly considered a wholesome activity. In fact, some other teachers at my school couldn’t believe that my wife had let me go play.
In the end, after about 20 or 30 minutes of playing, I had turned my 200 yen into over 3,100 yen. I decided to cash out. To do this, I pressed the “return” button on the machine which gave me back my original card, and a new card that contained my winnings. I took the original card back to the change machine and got back the remaining balance on my card, and took the new card up to the counter where a neatly dressed clerk gave me a pack of gum, a box of chocolate, and three casino-like plastic chips. These plastic chips are useless inside the parlor. In order to exchange these for cash, we exited the back door of the building where inside a small lobby we found a small bank-like window with bulletproof glass and two clerks. I put my three chips in the tray and the clerk gave me back three 1,000 yen bills.
The Lure of the Parlor
It doesn’t take long even for a skeptic to begin to feel the rush of excitement that comes with games of chance. In pachinko, the cultivation of that urge seems particularly insidious and well-timed. During my second visit, I was alone, and I had fewer apprehensions about how to play. I ended up winning. After spending around 600 yen, I had won 3,800 yen. I could have left then, but I still had 400 yen in credit to spend. And I did, with absolutely no benefit. I knew that I should call it quits and leave, but I felt that would be a poor choice. Just look what I had turned 600 yen into. 400 yen more, and I could be up another 2,000!
Why is pachinko so popular, and why is its popularity unique to Japan? What keeps people coming back? Brooks, Ellis and Lewis (2008) outline the addictive aspects of the game: “Pachinko has a low initial stake; can stimulate visual and aural senses; has rapid and continual cycles of play; provides the opportunity to experience frequent and regular ‘small wins’ and can seduce players into continuous play.” It is the game’s geographical ubiquity and ease of entry that makes me view pachinko differently than other forms of gambling. But these very same features also make it seem more insidious, more likely to lead to inadvertent addictions by everyday people.
It is interesting first to consider the environment of the parlor. It is bright. It is clean. It is exciting. The staff are helpful. And no one around you gives you a second look. In fact, I almost felt a sense of relief inside the parlor. As a foreigner in Japan, I am accustomed to being stared at whenever I go out in public. It is something I am used to, so I quickly notice when the stares become absent. In the parlor, no one stared at me, because no one even noticed me. Everyone had their gaze locked into their machines. You can’t look away, not even for a moment. David Plotz, in his essay “Pachinko Nation,” describes the situation eloquently:
It is impossible to take your gaze away from the board. If your concentration breaks for a second, you lose: Your groove vanishes… …One of the great paradoxes of pachinko parlors is that they are among the most crowded and noisiest activities in a crowded and noisy country, yet they are great places to be alone.
Quoted in Takiguchi & Rosenthal (2011), Iwasaki (1998) and Hahakigi (2004) echo this observation:
…the experience of the players is a solitary one. Each is transfixed by the machine in front of him, alone in a pursuit from which all distractions, including those of reality, have been excluded.
And so I found myself happily alone, surrounded by hundreds of others, enveloped in a cacophony of electronic noise, the reality outside excluded from view. Perhaps this is part of what players seek – a chance to unwind, to zone out, to forget about reality. They don’t have to worry about what someone else thinks of them, or what they need to do for someone else. In a collectivist culture in which selfish pursuits are often discouraged, pachinko offers a completely self-absorbing and single-minded escape. My friend Kento told me that in the pachinko industry, one rule of parlor design is that two things must not be visible inside the parlor – mirrors and clocks. Mirrors, I suspect, would jar people from their fantasy. Looking at oneself in a mirror, one might be forced to consider the question “why am I here?”, and then remember the family or the job they have waiting for them outside in the real world. And the absence of clocks is obvious. Time flies by while playing pachinko, but it is impossible to lose a lot of money all at once.
Exiting the parlor feels like stepping between worlds. Suddenly breathing clean air, seeing natural light, and hearing only the background noise of the suburbs, one realizes just how loud the interior of the parlor was. During my third visit, I used an iPhone application to measure the decibel level of the parlor. I measured the ambient noise, walking down each aisle with the microphone of my phone pointed forward. I measured an average of 94 decibels with a peak of 105. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends no more than four hours per day of exposure to noise at 95 decibels, and no more than one hour of exposure to levels of 105 decibels. But I doubt the players are aware of this – the noise is mesmerizing to such an extent that while inside it, you don’t even realize that it is loud.
Denizens of the Parlor
Based on my observations, it is hard to generalize and say who frequents these parlors. There was a mix of young and old, men and women, but overall, the clientele seemed older, and more male. People kept to themselves, focused solely on the screens and balls in front of them. It was hard to see their faces, but based on how I felt during play, I imagine they are expressionless and slack.
In an interview with with Kento Arata, my friend who manages his family’s pachinko business, he told me that the majority of their customers are people who work low-wage jobs, often manual labor. Of course, salaried workers and those with financial means visit the parlors, but according to him, they spend less time and less money on average. Thompson et al. (2005) looked at data from a 2001 national general survey and found some results that run counter to my expectations. Frequent players are significantly more likely than the general public to be smokers and drinkers, and are overwhelmingly male. However, they are equally representative of a wide range of incomes and are just as likely as the average person to own their own home. In the end, their conclusion is that frequent players do not constitute a distinct subculture. My own experience leaves me wondering, particularly as pachinko becomes less broadly popular yet still maintains its profits (Takiguchi & Rosenthal, 2011).
I am still left with the question – who are these people? They are mothers, fathers, sons, friends, uncles, grandparents, and they are spending their free time alone, slowly whiling away their earnings one steel ball at a time. Thompson et al. (2005) describe the social cost of time that pachinko takes, stating that “many players are identified as neglecting their family obligations to play.”
While my on-site observations cannot confirm this, I asked some of my adult students in my evening conversation class what they thought about pachinko. One woman told me a story about how her husband took their 6th grade son shopping, but actually went at the same parlor that I visited and left the boy by himself for two hours at a nearby shopping mall. She was obviously angry about this. Another student told me a sad story of a farming family in our small town who years ago lost their livelihoods to a pachinko addiction. They began to spend more time at the parlor, and less time taking care of their dairy cows. They reached a point where, to finance their pachinko habit, they began to sell off their livestock, and eventually ended up with nothing.
Most research on pachinko focuses on its legality, or its cost to society. My interest here has been only to explore the pachinko parlor as a gathering place within contemporary Japanese culture, and to try and gain a sense of who plays and why. It is an interesting game in many different respects, almost bewildering to an outsider. Leaving questions of morality, legality, and the social good aside, I can see why many people use the game as just another form of recreation, as a way to “cope with stress,” to “pass the time” or “to be solitary.” (Takiguchi & Rosenthal, 2011). It is impossible to lose a lot of money at once, and easy to frequently “win” small sums. The atmosphere of the parlor is exciting and lively, and nothing is required of the player except to turn a dial and watch the balls and pretty lights. No one will bother you – no one is likely to even recognize you. The world of the parlor is an utterly different one than the world outside. Pachinko parlors offer a convenient and somewhat burden-free escape from the daily pressures of work, family, and society that people face each day. Whether this is good is a wholly different question.
Thompson, W.N., Tanioka, I., & Fujimoto, K. (2005). Pachinko players in Japan: Subculture, cult, or ordinary citizens at leisure?. Gaming Law Review, 9 (6: 592-598)
Brooks, G., Ellis, T., & Lewis, C. (2008). Pachinko: A Japanese addiction?. International Gambling Studies, 8 (2: 193-205).
Takiguchi, N., & Rosenthal, R.J. (2011). Problem gambling in Japan: A social perspective. Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, 11, (1).
Plotz, D. (2002). Pachinko nation. U.S.-Japan Foundation Media Fellows Program.