Tiptoeing Through The Tulips, The Weird And Wonderful World Of Japanese Gambling

Apart from the embracing, indeed comforting, atmosphere of all-pervasive order, and the immaculate state of big city streets, the first time visitor to Japan will be struck by the plethora of strange, brightly hued, pinball-style arcades.

These, with their anime-inspired branding and design, are pachinko parlours, where playing pachinko, a game that can be broadly described as a cross between pinball and slots, is something of a national obsession, like cherry blossom, tulips and being on time.

Across this island nation of 126 million people there are around 13,000 pachinko parlours.

The far eastern origin of the game is said to date back to the 15th century and the Japanese put their unique spin on it in the late 1920s by creating the early pachinko gaming machines.

According to official stats “nearly half” of all leisure time in Japan is spent in these gaming citadels, with players spending the equivalent of US$200 billion a year on the exotic, weird and wonderful, upright machines.

Although most forms of gambling are outlawed in Japan under Chapter 23 of the country’s Criminal Code, the pachinko industry has found a uniquely Japanese pathway to circumvent this restriction.

Throughout Japan, an inherently conservative country, where tradition sits quite comfortably alongside cutting-edge innovation and corporate capitalism, there are historic exceptions to almost every rule – a little like Britain, one could muse.

So pachinko is also a game that you can effectively “bet” on, by the simple expedient of turning prizes into cash.

It’s complicated, a little like tiptoeing through blooming tulips, but it works, nevertheless.

To simplify: Players win at pachinko by shooting a ball into a special hole that activates a slot machine. If they hit a jackpot they win more balls. Balls can then be exchanged for prizes at a booth in the parlour, or traded for special tokens; never money.

But here’s the kicker. Take your tokens to a shop around the corner–usually owned by the pachinko parlour operator–and you can sell them for cash.

Technically, as long as winners do not receive cash in the parlour the law has not been broken.

Today, however, the dominance of pachinko is being challenged by a post-Covid19 surge in iGaming.

Along with a number of prefecture (state) and big city lotteries, gambling in Japan is only legal for four so-called public sports or Kōei kyōgi: bicycle racing, horse racing, speedway motorcycle racing and powerboat racing.

Regulated by local governments, or governmental corporations, all four sports allow pari-mutuel betting, with a prize pool of up to 80 percent of total sales.

Made in Japan

Promoted by a plethora of jazzy apps, featuring real-time racing broadcast on high definition mobile phone footage, iGaming, particularly betting on powerboat racing, is booming.

While pachinko necessitates a lot of time at the table if you are to have any hope of making significant winnings, mobile gaming is fast, fun and eminently portable, with wagers starting at a minimum Yen100, around US75 cents.

Pachinko takings are falling, while the stakes on powerboat racing–abetted by the phenomenon of the so-called “nesting” effect, where people are still staying at home despite the lifting of pandemic lockdowns–have almost doubled .

Last year, for example, the betting on powerboat racing generated a take of Yen2.44 trillion – the equivalent of US$18.37 billion.

And now this East Asia powerhouse is poised to offer three casino licences to operate nominated Integrated Resorts (IR) in Osaka, Tokyo and Yokohama.

Nagasaki and Hokkaido have also been mooted as possible IR sites.

Casino legislation was first mooted in 2015, when lawmakers submitted the Integrated Resort (IR) Enabling Act to the Diet, Japan’s parliament.

Five-years-later the government established the Casino Administration Committee to supervise and manage resort operators.

The IRs–officially at least, and perhaps in abeyance to opponents–are being very firmly targeted at the tourist trade.

Japanese locals, for example, will only be able to visit the casinos a maximum of three times a week, or 10 times a month. And they will have to pay an entrance fee of Yen6,000 (US$45), in a measure to “discourage addiction”.

It is believed that a veritable gaggle of gambling industry heavy-hitters, among them Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts, Melco Resorts and Genting Singapore, are among the parties interested in applying for one of the 10-year licences.

When the casinos finally open for business–after years of legislative caution and traditional Japanese “testing, testing, testing”–they will transform the country’s betting landscape.

But I’ll wager that the first punters who enter these burnished new gaming palaces will greeted not by row-upon-row of slots but serried ranks of time-honoured pachinko machines.

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