The Timeless Appeal Of Pachinko

Although gambling is illegal in Japan, there is one game of chance that is perfectly above board and has dominated popular culture for decades.

Pachinko is a pinball-like game where players can win prizes instead of cash. The reason it remains legal is that the Japanese government deems it to be a game of pure amusement, despite the obvious element of chance involved.

How to Play Pachinko

A Pachinko machine resembles and functions quite similarly to a pinball machine. Instead of the horizontal layout of a pinball machine, however, Pachinko features an upright interface. To play the game, players must “rent” small steel balls from the pachinko parlour, which is where these machines are generally found.

The object of the game is to land these steel balls into the brass cups positioned on the interface. Players attempt to do this using a trigger to launch the balls into play. At first, the ball goes through a spin track, before losing momentum and dropping into an area containing a number of brass cups and pins. The ball bounces off the pins and lands either in a cup – a win – or the catcher at the bottom of the machine – a loss.

The Origins of Pachinko

Although Pachinko’s exact birthplace has yet to be determined, there is no doubt that it is an old Japanese favourite. One theory is that Pachinko stems from a 1900s children’s pastime called “The Corinth Game” (inspired by America’s “Corinthian Game”). Another view suggests that Pachinko is descended from Japanese billiards (Billard Japonais). Whatever the case, the first documented instances of Pachinko being played in its modern form as a game for adults were in Nagoya, in the Aichi Prefecture, in the 1930s.

Although pachinko parlours were closed down during World War Two, they quickly rose back to popularity after the ended and have remained a firm favourite ever since. Pachinko machines were mechanically driven until the 1980s, when they were converted into the modern electronic form that you’ll find in Pachinko parlours today.

Narrowly Skirting the Law

Like western gaming arcades, Japanese Pachinko parlours offer game tokens or other prizes – like electronic gadgets, luxury accessories, stationery, and even cigarettes and alcohol – instead of cash winnings. This is how they narrowly skirt the issue of gambling being illegal in that country.

The fact that this is a mere technicality becomes glaringly obvious if you wander down the street from any Pachinko parlour in Japan and discover that there are stores that exchange these prizes for cash. However, the Japanese government’s stance on Pachinko seems to be based less on the technicalities of the game and more on how much revenue it generates – a staggering ¥23.3 trillion (US$209 billion) annually. In 2016, there were 2.82 million operational Pachinko machines in Japan.

A prime example of authorities looking the other way occurred in 2005, when an investigation into players using counterfeit coins in a Kanagawa Pachinko parlour revealed that the casino was operating an illegal Pachinko exchange. The exchange was ignored by the police whilst the counterfeiters were actively pursued and prosecuted.

Pachinko’s Changing Fortunes

With recent legislative changes and more in the works, the dormant gambling industry in Japan seems poised to come back to life in the not-too-distant future. Undoubtedly, this will have significant implications for the game of Pachinko and the parlours that offer it.

At first, it may seem that the legalisation of gambling in Japan would only help the Pachinko industry, since prizes will become larger and greater revenue will be generated. However, is Pachinko popular solely by virtue of its own merits or is its star status based on the fact that it currently has no competition?

If the latter proves to be the case, then the introduction of slot machines, table games, betting and other gambling pursuits may just knock Pachinko’s pedestal right out from under it.