Despite Japan’s strict gambling laws, pachinko, a pinball derivative played by millions of people, is a national obsession generating 30 trillion yen profit a year.

On a sweltering summer’s day in Tokyo salary men on lunch duck from air-conditioned building to air-conditioned building. One common oasis from the heat (and office) is a pachinko parlour, Japan’s equivalent of a slot arcade.

To a gaijin (foreigner) entering a pachinko parlour for the first time, the first thing that hits you is the fog of cigarette smoke, a harsh difference from the no-smoking laws in other parts of the developed world. Inside is uniquely Japanese. Row upon row of pachinko machines echo a cacophony of bells and cartoon voices, and the mostly male players sit rigid, watching silver balls bounce around (pachin refers to the sound of the ‘ko’, or ball), hoping they will fall down into the winning centre hole. The more balls they win, the more cash they will get.

This pinball derivative played by millions of people in Japan has been popular in the country since the 1940s – although today the machines are much more sophisticated and addictive than the original mechanized game. Within the pachinko machine’s frame of pulsing LED lights, silver metal balls tumble around on pins. They fall from the top, controlled only by gravity and the luck of which pins they bounce off. Once in motion, the player can only watch and hope. Dominating the centre of each machine is an LCD screen that loudly plays segments of the latest Japanese anime (animation) or TV show along with the score of any winnings.

Unlike casinos, which are based on direct cash winnings and therefore illegal under Japan’s strict gambling laws, pachinko is legal on a loophole related to how you claim your prize. It is also tinged with taboo because of its associations to the Japanese mafia which once controlled the prize cash outs.. “I know it's not good because it’s gambling, but sometimes I play,” said Yuji Nagata, a 28-year-old male systems engineer from Tokyo. Unlike Western slot machines, which are usually relegated to the back of bars or windowless casinos, pachinko parlours have a large street-facing presence, often around stations and on busy shopping strips in every town and city in Japan. Espace (1-23-3 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku; 03-3208-1115) is one of the largest parlours in Tokyo with three floors of pachinko right in the centre of the busy, fashionable neighbourhood of Shinjuku, enticing passing shoppers off the street with flashing lights.  Thousands of people come here to play every day. “Once I won 200,000 yen! But usually I lose,” said Nagata.

Espace may look like a fun video arcade from the street, but to the many players who stare intently at the machines and fate-making balls, it is clearly more than just a game. One player, Yukie Taniguchi, a 30-year-old computer graphics researcher, fed 100 yen coins into the machine to get credit in the form of the steel balls costing four yen each, which poured out like liquid precious metal into the tray protruding from the front. Despite all the noise from other machines, there was a sense of excitement. The balls tumbled around his Hunger Games-themed machine with all the fanfare of a lottery. He turned the doughnut-sized dial -- the only element of control the player has over the game -- to shoot the balls into the top of the machine, fast or slow, depending on his spin of the dial. The balls bumbled around like silver flies against a window, bouncing off pins, toward the bottom where Taniguchi willed them to enter the central chamber. When they did, the screen’s animation lit up one of three numbers from one to nine. In slot machines, three matching cherries means a win; in Pachinko, three matching numbers (such as 444 or 999) on the screen wins more metal balls to play on with or to cash in. Winning also advances the plot of the anime or TV show playing on the screen, otherwise the story keeps looping around. One of Taniguchi’s wins gave out 10,000 balls, worth 2.5 yen per ball when “cashed” in.

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.