Pachinko in Japan

Near my station is a giant pachinko parlor. It’s huge and you can see it everywhere. I know I’m getting close to my station when I look out the window of the train and see it towering over everything. It has a giant sign that lights up at night.


Every weekend morning people line up and wait for the place to open. Lots of them are drinking beer at 9:30 in the morning, getting keyed up for pachinko. There is an atmosphere of excited anticipation.

But, what’s pachinko all about anyway? Pachinko is a gambling game, kind of like slot machines back home, but it’s not really gambling because gambling is illegal in Japan. It’s technically a game like a video game in an entertainment center.

Pachinko is a huge industry in Japan.

This is basically how you play pachinko: You sit in front of the machine (it’s something like a slot machine) and controls how fast the little steel balls shoot onto the playing field. It’s a little like pinball, except that you don’t control flippers.

There are a variety of different kinds of machines, but most of them follow this pattern. You basically buy all the steel balls and load them into the machine and start shooting.

Sounds boring, eh? Well, many people say it’s addictive. If the ball hits certain places, you win more balls. But like slots, most of them don’t win anything.

Gambling is actually illegal in Japan, so there’s a clever loophole that pachinko parlors take advantage of. You are just playing for little steel balls, not money. But, each pachinko parlor has a “gift shop” where you can trade them for … small pieces of gold set inside a plastic cover . Then, you can sell these gifts at a nearby lotto place which is owned by the same pachinko shop where you were just playing. Pretty ingenious, huh?

There is a popular urban legend in Japan that the pachinko industry is run by Korean gangsters, some of whom even have connections with North Korea! Now, I didn’t just blow the lid off the conspiracy; you can read about this everywhere on the web. Everybody seems to know this, even people who go to pachinko every weekend.

I went to a pachinko parlor with my wife’s dad once. The place was loud and bright. It reminded me of a Las Vegas casino. And it was smoky. A haze hung over everything.

I sat at one of the machines and watched the little silver balls I had purchased drop into oblivion. That was it.

I found a machine where you can guide an arm with a lever and try to land the balls into certain places with prizes. That was more fun but still not worth the money.

I guess it’s only addictive if you win something!

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