In Japan, pachinko – a game similar to pinball but with multiple balls in play and minus the flippers – has always been a big business.  “Pachinkoten” (dedicated pachinko parlors) have become about as commonplace as temples and hot springs, and it’s not uncommon to see small crowds of men waiting outside such establishments early in the morning, waiting for them to open.

A phenomenon that is particularly noticeable in recent years is that of the large numbers of Koreans coming to Japan to gamble. Up until seven years ago, Korea’s pachinko industry was booming. However, when gambling laws were introduced to combat the recent rise in addictions, many players were left out in the cold with nothing to fill the gap. But with a thriving pachinko scene just a couple of hours away on the plane, many Koreans are heading to Japan to pick up where they left off.

Although gambling in Japan is technically illegal (aside for horse racing and betting on motor sports), there are known loopholes that are routinely exploited, and pachinko parlors are almost always situated right next door to a “separate” business that will happily exchange any pachinko balls won for cash prizes. For this reason, pachinko itself is not seen as gambling in the eyes of the law and parlors are permitted to operate freely, just as how thousands of adult-oriented establishments operate daily despite prostitution (itself a term full of legal loopholes) being illegal.

The married couple that spends 100,000 yen ($1,000) a shot on pachinko.

From the hustle and bustle of a noisy gambling parlor close to Hakata station in Fukuoka, Japan, the distinctive voices of a Korean couple can be heard.

Self-employed Cho Sokun (37) along with his wife (36) watched intently as they waited for the most popular machine in the parlor to become available.

What initially attracted this couple to Japan’s gambling scene was a Korean website promoting pachinko. The couple ended up booking a total of three nights and four days in the country.

“Of course we do a little shopping and dine out at restaurants during our stay, but the main purpose of coming to Japan has undoubtedly got to be the pachinko. In total, we’ve been gambling for about 10 years now. Before the banning of pachinko in our home country, there were times when we visited this type of parlor once a week. This is our second visit to Japan; the first time we came was about two weeks ago.”

On the first day of their second visit to Japan, the couple spent a total of six solid hours in the pachinko parlor. Unfortunately the odds weren’t in their favor, and they ended up parting with 100,000 yen ($1,000). On the second day, the couple spent a total of four hours gambling, with a loss of 10,000 yen ($100).

Not at all perturbed by such losses, they went on to comment with an air of enthusiasm,

“You find yourself getting lost in the sheer gorgeousness of the Japanese liquid crystal display. We plan on coming back again tomorrow.”


Striking up a conversation with the customers who visited the parlor over a period of two hours, what become evident was that a staggering 10 couples or more were from Korea. Every year, between 3-5 million Koreans visit Fukuoka in Japan. According to one travel agency, an increasing number of Koreans are booking only the flight and hotel room and spending a majority of their vacation on the pinball machines.

In pachinko’s Korean heyday, the country saw over 1,500 pinball parlors come into existence. However, with the rise in new models, which in a given hour gave returns of between $2,600- $3,600, gambling itself became a serious social problem.

One Korean man in his 30s raked up a debt of $92,300 and became so distraught as to how to pay it all back that he ended up committing suicide. Another man who lost $1,300, ended up setting fire to the parlor he gambled at. There have even been cases of students taking their parents’ credit cards without permission and getting into serious debt to fund their habit. What complicates this all the more is the underlying corruption between the political and gambling world.

“Pinball parlors are designed in such a way as to suck the masses dry. If it hadn’t been banned all those years ago, there’s no doubt that the number of casualties would have increased even further,” comments Jonhon, who was a victim of gambling addiction himself and now works for a shipbuilding company in Busan.

Johnon expands on his days of addiction by commenting,

“The majority of pinball parlors were open 24 hours a day. Inside the parlor, there was even a catered meal service and free coffee. I’ve got to admit that at one stage, I didn’t see fresh daylight for three whole days. Needless to say that there was nothing positive to gain from this experience and I only ended up getting into a heap of debt.”

Nowadays Jonhon can be seen participating in a center to help overcome gambling addiction, funded by the Korean government.

Che Isun who runs the center comments:

“Pinball parlors have a tendency to drag even those without the slightest connection to gambling, like the aged or women, into a viscous spiral of addiction. Needless to say that one form of gambling often leads to another.”

In present day Korea, it is possible to turn the points one accumulates from gambling into cash at illegal online roulette or card game parlors. Obviously, this only compounds addiction further. Although on the surface, the problem looks as though it has disappeared, the reality is that on the backstreets it is still going strong; it is true to say that black market pinball parlors, run by gangster organizations, still have a significantly large presence.


Of course, cash-carrying foreign visitors to Japan are always welcome, and many are reaping the benefits the recent trends.

One advertising company in Tokyo created a  homepage specifically advertising Japanese pachinko to the foreign market. The way the site operates is that firstly it accepts an advertisement fee from prospective pinball parlors wishing to advertise on the site. It then promotes the parlor in a way that is appealing to foreigners. To date, the site has registered a total of 300 parlors. By 2014, the company hopes to increase this number to 1,000.

Of those that visit the site, a whopping 70 percent are from China and Korea. The company director of the site made the following comment:

“By attracting foreign tourists, there is a real hope that the standards of the pachinko industry can be raised.”

In 2007, even Japan saw a restriction in use of specific pinball machines that carry a high level of addiction. What’s more, in 2011 and 2012, machines that were fixed in such a way so as to pay out large sums of money, or altered to make winning easier, were also made illegal.

Influenced to some degree by the restrictions mentioned above, Japan’s total revenue from pachinko parlors in 2011 dropped by two thirds when compared to those in play in 1995. The number of stores have also been decreased by two thirds.

According to the late professor Hiromasa Ishii from Keio University, who carried out a survey into national gambling addiction, the total percentage of males that showed an abnormal addiction was 9.6 percent. The total percentage of females showing the same signs was 1.6 percent.

What’s important is looking at initiatives to eliminate further addiction.

Professor Takiguchi, from Otani University, who is a specialist in sociology, gave the following views on the whole gambling dilemma:

“Looking at just how much employment it creates, wiping out Japan’s pachinko completely would not be an easy feat. However, about 80 percent of the gambling addicts that go to self-help groups are victims of the pinball or slot machines. The environment and given circumstances are quite different to the casinos abroad; when it comes to the casinos, the amount one can spend is fixed from the outset and exceeding this sum means being unable to continue further. What’s more there are even cases in which customers who visit too often are cautioned by members of staff. I truly feel that this type of hands-on approach is a realistic strategy in minimizing the problem of gambling addiction.”

Source: Asahi Digital

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