Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Gambling in Japan

Pachinko. パチンコ. In Japan, this is the gambling machine. More popular that video poker. More popular than Keno. It is a pinball-like machine without flippers. Instead of your average pinballs, a pachinko machine fires smaller metal balls onto a nearly-vertical playing field. The balls drops into a number of holes at the bottom of the machine, yielding extra balls if the proper holes are filled. These balls can be exchanged for money, so gathering as many balls as possible is the goal of the game.

Most forms of gambling are illegal in Japan. Some exceptions include horse racing and motor sports (bicycle racing, motorcycle racing, etc). Japan conducts more than 21,000 horse races per year, across a total of thirty racetracks. Bicycle racing, or track cycling, originated in Japan around 1948. Skilled victors can clock in as fast as 70 kilometers per hour. Boat racing is also popular in Japan, and uses paramutuel betting, meaning all bets are put into a pool and winnings are split amongst the pool.

Certain public lotteries are also permitted, and monitored by the government. Known as Takarakuji (宝くじ), in which "takara" means treasure, this type of lottery involves small kiosks set up throughout the country. Top prizes can be as high as 100 million yen (about a million dollars USD). Lottery sales are intended to fill government coffers, meaning the yield of lottery winnings can never be more than 50% of total sales. The remaining money is allotted to organizations like charities and local branches of government.

Still, above all, pachinko reigns supreme. In a year, pachinko will do more than $300 billion USD in turnover. To put that in perspective, that's more money annually that the global drug market and the Japanese automotive industry combined. Up until the 1980's, pachinko machines were mechanical in nature, but modern machines now are more akin to the electronic gaming machines of Las Vegas that their historical counterparts. Click HERE to watch a video of a pachinko machine in action, if you want to get a feel for what some hopeless people spend all day doing in Japan.

It is said the majority of pachinko parlors are owned by Zainichi Koreans, ethnic Koreans who trace their lineage back to Japanese colonialism of Korea during Japan's imperialist expansion. However, pachinko parlors also have strong ties to the Japanese mafia, known as the Yakuza. The police take a very active role in pachinko regulation, and parlors are required to pay an "unofficial" gambling tax (read: bribe).

The status of pachinko as a form of gambling is a delicate one. Because pachinko winnings are paid in the form of prizes, not cash, the Japanese government does not classify it as gambling. However, there is usually a nearby store owned by the same company that will accept these prizes and pay cash for them, essentially acting as a middleman between a gambler and his winnings. Because the exchange center is independent from the parlor, they are considered two different businesses and therefore not seen as a gambling establishment. What?

I have friends who play pachinko, but I have never been in a pachinko parlor. I know people who make a living playing pachinko, but it sounds like a tiring and monotonous (and not very profitable) lifestyle. Japanese attitudes on this type of gambling vary, but the majority of people I've talked with seem to look down on pachinko players as "problem" gamblers. Maybe if the rumors of organized crime intervention weren't so strong, I'd check it out myself.

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