By Mindy Tan
Pachinko, a uniquely Japanese form of gambling, is a popular sport in Japan. But interest in the game has been waning, particularly amongst younger players. Parlor operators are trying to revive interest by rolling out luxurious, air-conditioned parlors with uniformed staff, and the industry endeavors to introduce new games on a regular basis. Some parlor operators also offer non-smoking premises, widely considered a radical shift in this industry.
Pachinko parlors dot the streetscapes of Japan, with their bright lights, loud bells and whistles, and constant flow of traffic. The game is a popular pastime, and one of the few forms of gambling that is tolerated in Japan. It was not until December 2016 that legislators passed a law that legalizes casino gambling in the country.
Players spent ¥23.3 trillion (roughly $205 billion at today’s exchange rate) on pachinko and related slot machines in 2015, according to a Bloomberg report. This is equivalent to about 4 percent of Japan’s GDP.
At Pachinko Maruhan, one of the parlors in Shinjuku, a district in Tokyo, players purchase small steel balls which costs between ¥1 and ¥5. These balls are fed into the machine and players control the speed by which balls are shot into the field by gripping a knob on the lower right hand corner of the machine.
The goal of the game is to shoot more balls into a central funnel. When three matching symbols appear on the screen, you win! Thousands of steel balls are spit out into a well at the base of the machine which are collected by players.
Players exchange their winnings for prizes which can range from soft toys to electronics. It is, up to this point, entirely legal. But players often go to small establishments, usually near the main building, to exchange these prizes for cash.
Pachinko is still a popular pastime, but interest in the game is waning. The number of players has been trending downward after peaking in 1995, as casual players leave the market. The percentage of men under 20 playing pachinko and pachislot, a derivative of pachinko, fell from 11.4 percent to 1.7 percent from 2009 to 2015, according to market data from Sega Sammy Group. The percentage of men in their 20s was 6.8 percent in 2015, down from 24.5 percent in 2009.
To counteract this, pachinko and pachislot machine manufacturers have been making industry-wide efforts to introduce voluntary regulations to curb functions that encourage excessive gambling. They are also forming partnerships to establish industry-wide platforms to increase cost efficiency through the joint purchasing of components.
Photo at top: One of the many Pachinko parlors in Tokyo, Japan. (Mindy Tan/MEDILL)