Japan: The decline of pachinko

A staple of the modern Japanese cityscape, pachinko parlors employ a third of a million people in Japan, draw in an estimated 30 trillion yen per year, and entice roughly one quarter of the country's entire population to play at least occasionally, 17 million of them on a regular basis.

Pachinko is a struggling industry of late, however. In the past, pachinko has benefited as Japan's “national pastime” from a special arrangement in which its more unsavory gambling-like nature has been tolerated through a third-party prize-exchange system referred to as “santen hoshiki” (三店方式) [ja]. Stricter regulations and a changing market landscape, however, are set to alter this arrangement, with one-third of all parlors expected to close in coming years. Even the support of famous American movie stars would appear to be ineffective in the face of the impending crisis and resulting declining interest in the game.

Pachinko player (by Suviko)
Pachinko player (by Flickr user Suviko)

The latest threat to the pachinko industry comes from plans to legalize and regulate casinos in Japan [ja], endorsed by both major parties in a rare show of unity [ja]. The move places the status of pachinko as semi-legal gambling into question, and has sparked comments and blog posts reflecting on the place of pachinko and gambling in modern Japanese society.

Many are critical of pachinko's highly addictive and ultimately destructive nature. In a post entitled “Is pachinko gambling?”, blogger Harumi writes:


I don't play pachinko, and when I see one after another these cases in which children die while their parents are engrossed in pachinko, I have to think that we would be better off without these places.
In the first place, they're illegal.
Even if you go bankrupt as a result of pachinko, you can't use it as a reason for personal bankruptcy.
The reason for this is that pachinko is regarded as gambling.
But the cause of many personal bankruptcies appears to be pachinko.
The fact that [this issue] has been neglected up to now is itself nothing short of a mystery.

Blogger hoopou-chu, meanwhile, wonders about the legality of casinos given a ban on gambling:


From the start, this “casino” comes under the ban against acts of gambling. If this bill is established, I wonder if it will be consistent with the ban on gambling.

Comments responding to a J-cast article on the casino legislation brought up a number of interesting points. In comment #7, one user remarked:


When there are such a great number of people going as far as to borrow money [for pachinko], it has gone beyond the level of amusement. There is too much of a narcotic-like addictive nature to it. It is obvious that it should be subject to some kind of regulation. Pachinko, it's amusement for the common people, right? If it attracts customers because [winnings] can be turned into cash, then it is nothing but gambling. It is only in Japan, a country without dignity, that these gambling halls are found right in front of train stations, not even sectioned off in any particular way. It's shameful.

News that South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak expressed concern to Japanese opposition leader Ozawa Ichirō about the status of Korean pachinko parlor operators in Japan prompted commenter #10 to point out that in South Korea, pachinko is actually illegal:


South Korea prohibits pachinko back in its homeland.
Everybody knows the reason [they do this].
It is because there is a high level of speculation in pachinko, it destroys the lives of many people, and it gives rise to [the phenomenon of] people being heavily indebted to loan sharks (sara-kin).
Even so, a lot of pressure is being put on the Japanese government.
They are spreading the crime that is banned in their homeland around Japan.
Pachinko is gambling, and it is clear that the time has come for it to be abolished in Japan as well.
I hope that the Japanese government ignores the pressure from South Korea and moves ahead as it has been on the path toward bringing the pachinko industry to an end.

Commenter #12 questioned the exclusive status of pachinko as quasi-legal gambling:


With the exception of pachinko, if you apply santen hoshiki to say mahjong or poker, you get arrested.
Are their some special circumstances to explain why you are not arrested in the case of pachinko?

Finally, in comment #13 one user questions the “amusement” value of pachinko:


There are people around me about whom I think: “If only they didn't play pachinko, they would be a good person.” That's why I think, if pachinko completely disappeared it would be a good thing!
This is nothing new, but most people do not play for amusement, they play with the goal of exchanging prizes for money.


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