Nation of Pachinko

Japan is a country where gambling was strictly prohibited ever since 1907. But was it always like this? Moreover, are there any loopholes in the law or forms of betting that weren’t illegal?

Why Do Japanese Hate Gambling?

Although we view Japan as a country that belongs in the future more than it does in the present, it still has a strong connection to its past. The Japanese are an ancient and proud nation — they value tradition more than anything. And traditionally, they have quite a negative view of gambling.

A Centuries Long Ban

If you’re wondering for how long gambling was banned in Japan, you can find the answer in history books. Although most of them will tell you that it was like that since 1907, that is only half the truth. Japan had quite a negative stance on betting since approximately 600 A.D. — and it didn’t change until 2016.

Throughout the ages, some dynasties favored gambling games, while others were strictly against them. So the Japanese had no other choice but to adjust to the constant changes in the rules. However, it wasn’t until World War II that the Japanese started to observe gambling so negatively. At one point, even just having a child gambler brought shame to the whole family.

As odd as it may sound, not all gambling games are frowned upon in Japan. For example, sports betting is very much legal, and the nation loves this hobby. Bookmakers are quite popular, and the population loves to bet on horse and car racing. Next to sports betting, lotteries and Bingo are also allowed. According to Japan’s laws, these games are not gambling per se — they kind of operate in the gray zone. Most interestingly, Pachinko is a gambling game that the Japanese simply adore. Pachinko resembles slot machines, but there’s one difference — the prizes aren’t money.

Japan Then and Now

In 2016, Japan passed a new law that would finally lift the ban on gambling. This new law would let casinos exist but only as parts of resorts.

To the Japanese, this was both good and bad news. The prime minister believes this will further strengthen the world’s third strongest economy. Additionally, he thinks it will bring even more tourists into the country. On the other hand, the nation fears that gambling addiction will be on the rise. Pachinko addiction is already a huge problem in the country, and people don’t even get money as a reward. So the fright that gambling will bring a lot of potential threats is very well justified. However, the government did announce a couple of restrictions for the local population — the citizens of Japan will be paying a $50 entrance fee if they want to enter a casino. Additionally, they won’t be able to visit them more than 10 times a month.

Luckily, none of these rules will apply to tourists or foreign citizens living in Japan. Either way, the government hopes that this will help control the potential addiction problem that might emerge in the country.

What Is Pachinko Exactly?

Pachinko is basically a pinball machine with slight modifications. It first appeared in the 1920s, but the first mechanical version emerged during the 1970s. To play Pachinko, you first need to buy a couple of small metal balls from a Pachinko parlor. Inside the machine, there are plenty of obstacles that randomize the path of the ball. To get an award, the ball needs to fall into one of the pockets. Additionally, the size of the pocket is only slightly wider than the ball — this creates a serious challenge for the player.

Since gambling in Japan was illegal, Pachinko machines don’t grant you money in case you win. Instead, they reward special prizes such as clothes, candy, and jewelry. However, even though there’s no money involved, a significant part of the Japanese population developed an addiction. The economy of Japan greatly profits from the recognition of Pachinko — the Japanese spend about $150 billion on this game annually. The government decided to tolerate it because it is an economic injection to the country. Japan profits from these machines more than Singapore and Las Vegas combined — and gambling in this country wasn’t even legal until recently! This easily explains why the nation has such mixed feelings regarding the new gambling law.

Who Owns Pachinko Parlors?

Pachinko parlors in Japan are so popular you can find them scattered all around their cities — and there are thousands of them all over the country. However, what you might be surprised about is that these parlors are not necessarily owned by the Japanese.

The Korean Japanese are the ones who decided to make Pachinko a serious business and profit from it. During colonial times, Korea belonged to Japan. Generally, this is a part of history that most Koreans hate speaking about — it was a time of great difficulty and humiliation. Being a colonized country meant that all of your resources and culture were stripped away.

However, after World War II, a lot of Koreans moved to Japan. Most Korean residents actually ran away from the new regime in North Korea after the country had split. One part favored the communist regime, while the other wanted to keep things democratic. That’s how North and South Korea came to be.

Now, Japan is a country that doesn’t allow dual citizenship by law. This is mostly a response to the fact that Japanese residents weren’t allowed this privilege in other countries either. Many had to disown their Japanese passports in order to become official citizens of other countries. That’s when the problem with Japanese Koreans truly emerged.

The Impact of Koreans

The book ‘Pachinko,’ by Min Jin Lee, is a testimony to the popularity of this game in Japan. Min Jin Lee is a famous author who constantly tackles subjects of race, religion, and class. She often speaks of Koreans in Japan and how they brought the Pachinko industry to where it is today.

Although her award-winning book speaks of a young woman who becomes pregnant too early, there’s a more profound message behind it. It actually speaks of the mistreatment of Korean families in Japan, especially after World War II. She claims Koreans in this country are classified as South Koreans, North Koreans, and Koreans with citizenship.

In case you’re wondering how any of this is related to gambling and Pachinko, the answer is simple. Koreans control most of the Pachinko businesses in the country. During the end of the 20th century, Japanese society significantly scrutinized Koreans who owned the parlors. The problem became even bigger when those Koreans couldn’t keep their own citizenship. To become Japanese, they had to first renounce their Korean citizenships.

How Pachinko Business Helps North Korea


Believe it or not, this industry is so strong that even the neighboring North Korea profits from it. The two countries are politically on bad terms, but Koreans living in Japan constantly send financial support to their relatives in North Korea. And although president Kim Jong Un sees this as support to his regime, the reality is quite different. People in Japan are well aware of the horrible living conditions in North Korea. This financial support sent to the relatives is a matter of survival. As Ms. Min Jin explained in her New York Times book review ‘The history has failed us, but that’s okay.’

Given how the Japanese generally have a negative attitude towards gambling, this extended to Korean Pachinko owners. Consequently, it created an atmosphere of discrimination that Japan struggles with nowadays.

What Will Happen to This Fun Game?

It’s quite natural that Pachinko owners are genuinely concerned about the popularity of this game now that gambling has been legalized. How will this affect the industry? Will the business rates drop once casinos begin to open? What worries Pachinko owners the most is that famous American casinos announced their arrival to the market. Las Vegas Corps and MGM Resorts International are only two of many big players headed to Japan. Moreover, once famous brands such as Sega and Konami turn their focus to casino games, will Pachinko be left in the dust?

A Newborn Market

It’s evident that the future of Pachinko is quite unpredictable, especially since Japan believes that it will earn billions thanks to gambling. Many believe that Pachinko will survive but that it will need to adapt. This change might be desirable because these machines will finally be able to offer prizes in cash. Additionally, they will probably receive a status similar to that of slots. After all, it’s quite common that people compare these two machines.

The country of the Rising Sun also heavily relies on tourism. It’s evident that tourists will rush to the newly opened casinos, but Pachinko parlors might considerably profit from this as well. To most of the Westerners, casino games are nothing new. However, Pachinko doesn’t exist anywhere else but in Japan, so that’s why the tourists will probably want to experience this game more than anything else. In essence, the parlors will probably benefit just as much as casinos — if not more. Their distinctiveness might be their salvation.

Japanese value their tradition, and this is a sort of a guarantee that Pachinko machines will survive. The new casinos will open their doors by 2025, but if you want to have a taste of Japan before its gambling era begins, I suggest you pack your bags right away. I wish you a safe trip.

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