The gambling game that’s not gambling

Gambling for money is, for the most part, banned in Japan. But some sneaky punters found a way around the stringent laws in the form of pachinko: a very noisy, very colourful, and very addictive pinball-cross-pokies arcade game that’s wildly popular throughout Japan.

Pachinko is legally classified as "entertainment" and 1 in 11 Japanese try their luck day and night in one of the 9,639 pachinko parlours that exist across the country ... spending 30 times more per annum than what is spent in casinos in Las Vegas and Macau combined for the same period.

The prolific money-generating-but-not-gambling game finds its origins in Corinth, a mini children’s version of "bagatelle" (billiards-derived indoor table game) that was manufactured in Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century. By the 1920s, the game had found its way across the Pacific and into Japanese sweet shops where it was installed as a rather cunning way to convince kids to stick around longer and buy more lollies. It was renamed pachinko, a reference to the "pachink!" sound that the small metal balls made as they ricocheted about the machine. Although the game all but disappeared during World War II, in the years that followed, the country found itself with a surplus of metal ball bearings. And so, in 1948 the country’s first official pachinko parlour was opened. 

As parlours popped up across the country, owners were faced with a big problem: the Japanese businessmen who frequented the establishments weren’t all that interested in winning lollies. So, to circumvent the law prohibiting gambling for cash, pachinko parlour owners (80% of whom are Korean) developed a complex payout system: if a player hits a jackpot, they receive more metal balls which allows them to continue playing. Once their luck is exhausted, they exchange their balls within the parlour for an odd assortment of prizes including cosmetics, cigarettes, stuffed toys. Among the array of prizes available, there will invariably be an item known as the "special prize" (tokushu keihin 特殊景品) typically a small silver or gold novelty item encased in plastic.

The prizes, including any "special prizes" can be exchanged for cash at an outside establishment in the vicinity of the parlour. Because the transaction does not take place in the same venue as the pachinko machines, it cannot be considered gambling. As convoluted as it is, the system works. In 2021, the pachinko market amounted to a whopping 14.6 trillion Japanese Yen (approximately 157 billion AUD), representing almost 4% of the country’s GDP. 

In the 1980s, pachinko went digital and game developers heightened the addictive nature of the game by adding chaotic sound effects and hypnotising light displays to the anime-themed content (Sega is the owner of most pachinko franchises). And it worked! In a 2014, 9.6% of Japanese men and 1.6% of Japanese women were believed to have a gambling addiction spurred by pachinko. But sadly, as the game is not classified as gambling, there is limited help available. 

Luckily, pachinko is steadily declining in popularity. In 2018, the Japanese government introduced a cap on the number of balls (and therefore money) that can be won. Financial hardships engendered by COVID-19 further rubbed salt into the wound and by the end of the pandemic the number of pachinko parlours nationwide had halved. It seems that younger populations would rather while away their youth glued to video games at home in their bedrooms than playing pachinko in gaudy arcade halls.

Video: Japan's Biggest Gaming Obsession Explained | Pachinko
The Secret Life of Pachinko. How Japan's gaming parlors really work.
Video: Day in the Life of a Japanese Casino Worker Pachinko from Paolo from TOKYO


1. Engraved Pachinko Balls. Photo by anescient.
2. A Pachinko Parlour in Akihabara, Tokyo. Photo: Tischbeinahe.
3. Corinthian Bagatelle
4. Pre-War Pachinko Machine
5. Pachinko in the Candy Store. Abroad in Japan video HERE.
6. Old School Mechanical Pachinko
7. Mechanical Pachinko Machine from the 1970s
8. Pachinko Balls
9. Entrance to a pachinko parlour in Shibuya, Tokyo. Stéfan Le Dû Flickr Link.
10. Abroad in Japan video HERE

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