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What exactly is Pachinko? – Japan’s Popular Pastime

A blast of jingling noise coming out of an open automatic door that goes beyond the “lively”. Once you step inside from the door, you find yourself in a maze of flashy arcade games. This chaos is a total opposite of the calm wabi-sabi spirituality and the orderly image of Japan that Konmari promoted. But when you visit Japan, no matter whether it is a big city like Tokyo or Osaka, or a rural town, you will encounter this unique, entertainment spot—

 

Pachinko.

 

It is also called Pachislot sometimes, and is a popular pastime spot for many locals. During holiday seasons such as the New Years and on weekend mornings, many people form long lines waiting for those Pachinko parlors to open.

 

The most popular entertainment in Japan?

According to one survey, there are more than 8,000 pachinko parlors as of 2021. The number is staggering considering there are only 25 horse racing tracks nationwide where another pastime entertainment for similar demographics take place.

 

According to the Leisure White Paper 2021 published by Japan Productivity Center in 2021 the scale of the pachinko market will be 14.6 trillion JPY (=106 billion USD). Considering the Japanese film box office record broken right before the Covid pandemic in 2019 was 261.18 billion JPY, it is possible to see how big the pachinko market is in the country. But what exactly is this Pachinko, or Pachislot anyway?

 

To put it simply, Pachinko is a kind of an arcade game where players control the route of a metal ball that falls down on the vertical play field through an array of various obstacles such as pins, levers, and traps till they enter a payoff target or reach the bottom of the field by using a knob. The player gets more balls if balls end up in a certain place, which could even lead to a big win.

 

On the other hand, slot machines are often installed in those Pachinko parlors. These slots are also called “pachislot” and are enjoyed by people in the same way as Pachinko. In fact, Pachislot is not much different from classic casino slots. Players simply match patterns on a 3-reel slot machine by pressing a button on each reel.

 

Online casinos are also popular in Japan, as we can witness on websites such as OnlineCasinoJapan which lists many of the available casino sites in the country. While they also have slots, in those online casino slots, patterns that appear on each spin are determined randomly by RNGs (random number generators), leaving no room for player involvement. In with Pachislot slot, you might actually feel like you have more control over the outcome as you can actually choose your own timing to stop the reels.

 

In any case, Pachinko and Pachislot are not just games, but are more considered as gamble.

 

A game that exploits the loophole in the Japanese law?

 

Actually gambling is not legally allowed in Japan. Horse racing is one of the publicly managed  gambling along with a few others like bicycle racing and boat racing that are treated as special exceptions. Online casinos are also legally vulnerable, and many sites accessible in Japan can only be considered “not illegal” if they are run by offshore operators. Pachinko, on the other hand, is certainly locally run enterprises and does not have a special legal status, but how is it possible that there are 8,000 parlors?

 

In fact, pachinko is operated with the so-called “three-point system”. In other words, the player pays for metal balls to play with at the pachinko parlor, and receives rewards from the parlor based on the amount of the balls they won, instead of cash prize. Players can then take the rewards to a third party shop that buys back those rewards and thus, players can receive cash. By doing this, no money is considered directly involved with the gambling part, which doesn’t make Pachinko illegal.

 

Unexpectedly long history with Pachinko

Pachinko has a surprisingly long history. It seems to have spread in Japan from around the 1930s as people’s pastime and gained popularity after World War II nationwide. Today, more and more new machines are developed, even with collaboration with popular anime and game characters, and incorporating digital technology and making further progress.

 

When in Japan, if you get tired of visiting too many mainstream sightseeing spots like Shibuya crossing or temple tours in Kyoto, try Pachino. You may be able to blend in with the locals and get to experience a new side of Japan that you wouldn’t expect.

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