They can be found everywhere in Japan. In major cities and in the sleepy countryside alike, the sound of high pitched ringing and pinging flows out of automatic doors as they open to let some poor bespectacled salary man back into the harsh light of day, far from the neon buzz and cacophony of electronic noises of his temporary home and refuge, the Pachinko parlour.
What is Pachinko you may ask? It’s a question I’ve asked my students many times and, “a sort of pinball,” is the only answer I’ve ever received as they remain strangely non-committal in their answers. A way to lose money while being assaulted by flashing lights and random video sequences to build up suspense would have been my guess, but such is their popularity in Japan I’m inclined to believe I may be missing part of their appeal.
According to the Japan Times the game evolved from an American Pinball machine originally exported to Japan to be sold as a children’s toy. Over time the humble pinball machine became an adult’s game and something of a gambling phenomenon.
How much of a phenomenon? Well, two minutes down the road from my apartment, on an otherwise non-descript yet quiet (for just how quiet, see the below picture) road leading in one direction to the highway and in the other to the quiet city centre, sits a fairly typical Pachinko parlour. It has as many parking spaces as the local supermarket and unlike the supermarket they seem to be in demand every moment of the day. They can be found in every city and in my travels I find them to be almost everywhere where one can find a space to build one; in a form of architecture that can only be described as Buck Rodgers style modernism.
Their names are usually snippets of English, something that hints at victory and competition, for example ‘Champion’. Anime or Manga style art often play a role in the signage lending an air of fiction to the places. I suppose it adds to the feeling of a different world that casinos often try to create in order to keep gamblers at their tables through the night by making sure the environment remains the same no matter the time of day. It also on a far more obvious level taps into the general adoration of all things Manga.
Yet, while I can see the Pachinko machine’s roots in pinball, as it looks essentially like a vertical pinball machine with added things to twist and push and generally confuse and distract its players with, it has evolved into something all the more confusing and inherently Japanese in its design. In fact if I had to describe it to someone my best attempt would be Akihabara in a box. A neon cacophony dedicated to the art of switching off from the hustle and bustle of life itself.
The game itself is appallingly simple. You rent little pachinko balls (think pinballs) for around four yen a ball, so a thousand yen note will get you about 250 balls. The aim is simply to win more balls which allows you more opportunities to get them to drop into the central gate that then activates the slot machine element of the game that allows you to win yet larger prizes. To get a considerably more detailed overview of how the game works, check out the Wikipedia Pachinko page.
However, while they may be on almost every other street in Japan they are not necessarily all doing quite so well. Nationally Pachinko is actually worth more than Japan’s domestic auto industry and an individual parlour can easily make $25 million dollars a year. Yet, despite these huge figures, on my regular drive to lessons I pass two empty, creaking and dilapidated Pachinko relics. Thanks to their distinctive design no one appears to have any interest in reusing the buildings themselves. A friend of mine has even noticed one such Pachinko palour is currently filled with the product of this years rice harvest. A gambling den converted for use into a grain silo of sorts.
The house, clearly, always wins, unless as in the case of the latterly mentioned derelicts, the house is too big for the area it resides in. But the size and number of them in my otherwise sleepy little city suggests that these colossal gambling halls, are on the one hand incredibly popular and the other, very profitable indeed.
When my friend played the other day, in an attempt to fathom what the hell the appeal of these machines was he dropped a hundred yen in a low risk, low win machine that lasted as a game for all of fifty seconds. However, people will spend hours upon hours in these places and rarely beat the house and if they do only by a measly margin.
How much, is a moment of solitude costing the average Japanese person who indulges in Pachinko? According to The Japan Times in a 2007 article, “a YRI survey of about 2,000 respondents conducted between September and October in 2006 found that the average amount spent on pachinko was a whopping ¥28,124 per visit.” In pounds, for my English readers, that comes to a whopping, £214.67.
As David Plotz notes in his article on Pachinko in Japan (and it only exists in Japan) the all-pervasive, easy access and economically draining variety of gambling that it takes the form of (in contrast to the economic and tourist draw of places like Las Vegas) is seen by academics to be the worst kind of gambling in a society from an economic standpoint. What does that mean exactly? Well you’d happily fly to Las Vegas, see a show, eat some fine foods, drink some colourful cocktails and generally have a good time. Possibly even, without gambling a single penny, but no one is flying to Japan for Pachinko.Certainly not for the parlours in my city.
The strange thing is, technically, gambling is illegal in Japan. Yet, Pachinko operates in a grey area where it is generally ignored and loosely regulated. There is no moral distain for Pachinko as far as I can tell in my day-to-day life and so as noted in the fantastic piece on Pachinko on the New York Japan Society website by David Plotz, Pachinko is treated like many other vices in Japan, as a purely practical issue.
The nervous shuffling from my students when I from time to time ask them certain questions is usually pretty indicative of unspoken elements of Japanese society that they know to be logically harmful, perhaps even shameful but to which they turn a blind eye. That personally the appeal of Pachinko remains elusive to me is obvious, I come from a generation and a culture with other means of escape from the daily grind; indeed not being Japanese I don’t believe the daily need be a grind at all. Yet, that shuffling persists because while I cannot discern the comfort one receives from the abandonment of self in somewhere as noisy and crowded as a Pachinko Parlour (if only for that brief few hours a day to maintain one’s own sanity and separateness from the solid whole that is Japanese society), it is simple to discern something that the Japanese know too well already. That a practical response to something damaging, is nothing to be ashamed of, but if that solution includes the desire to pretend it doesn’t exist at all, to never discuss it in real detail then it will be left to fester all the worse.
When Japanese Kawaii! Culture goes a little too far…
Walking back from taking the pictures for this article, I passed by a stonemason’s that deals primarily in gravestones. These kinds of places are scattered quite openly around Japan and are fairly easy to come by, indeed I pass by one with an enormous nine-foot tall figure outside in lieu of an actual sign when I drive to certain lessons. I’ve always been rather impressed by the craftsmanship and obvious skill involved. In a country so full of flashes of neon it’s nice to come across something of the traditional and understated from time to time. Something respectful of its heritage, not gaudy when it should be gracious.
But then I saw something less funereal, more furry… he does look rather dapper though.