The big business of Japan’s pachinko parlours
Taniguchi swapped the tray of thousands of winning silver balls for a receipt, which in turn was swappable for alcohol, toys or other prizes. To get money, you need to ask for the “special prize” tokens. These are plastic gold-coloured tokens that can be swapped for cash -- but not within the pachinko parlour. Instead, they are cashed in at TUC shops that are always located nearby and exist as a legal loophole enabling you to win money in a country that technically forbids gambling. The exchange of prizes for cash was once controlled by the yakuza (Japanese mafia), but has been cleaned up by the police, who now regulate it in this way.
It sounds elaborate for a game, but pachinko is both big business and a national obsession – there are more than 12,500 pachinko halls in Japan, some with slot machines, which together make four times as much profit as all the rest of the world’s legal casino gambling combined. The game itself generates 30 trillion yen profit a year for the pachinko companies.
Setsuko Chiba was introduced to pachinko by her husband. When they split up, she continued to play regularly for 15 years, using it as supplementary income to support her family. “It was part of the same chain – pachinko, cigarettes and cans of coffee,” explained Chiba. Trolleys laden with drinks and food for sale are continuously pushed around the parlours, encouraging people to stay longer. Like other pros, she targeted new machines -- which are programmed to give out frequent winnings over the first few days to attract new customers -- and her average win was around 70,000 yen on a good day. She also made large losses, and over the years her teeth and eyesight declined from neglect and hours spent at the machines. When her children complained of her long absences, it was a wake up call. She used her winnings to transition toward a more legitimate use of her gambling skills, becoming a self-employed stockbroker. She gave up smoking and pachinko at the same time, two taboos for Japanese women.
Now 58, Chiba represents a new market that the pachinko giants want to capture – female players who want to play this stress-relieving game but without any stigma. Quieter, cleaner parlours are opening up where balls can be bought for just one yen each (rather than the usual four yen) with smaller potential winnings to switch the focus onto the game itself rather than gambling. Many modern mega-parlours, such as Maruhan (28-6 Utagawacho Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-5458-3905) now offer smoke-free areas, following the lead of international brands in Japan like McDonalds and Starbucks. Prizes, such as handbags, are also targeting women. P-ARK Ginza (5-12-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-3546-0003) even has pamphlets with pachinko instructions in English to attract tourists to the game. A visit to any pachinko parlour is still a very Japanese experience, but in the future it may look more like a family-friendly Las Vegas casino.