Walk into any of the 12,500 pachinko parlors in Japan and you are not likely to be confused with the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas or Macau. The incessant buzz of hundreds of machines, blinking neon lights, and smoke-filled windowless rooms are not for the faint of heart. The game itself is a complex vertical version of pinball that has more to do with luck than skill.
Nonetheless, pachinko pulls in 16.7 million customers a year spending close to ¥19.38 trillion yen according to Tokyo-based Ichiyoshi Research Institute Inc. For 10 years lawmakers have been trying to change amusement laws to allow casino gambling in Japan, and many hope that this is the year it will come to fruition. Steve Wynn and other Las Vegas gambling moguls are lined up anxiously waiting the opening of this fertile market.
While gambling is technically illegal, pachinko manages to sidestep this law by rewarding winners with shiny metal balls or prizes that can then be redeemed for cash at stalls, usually just outside the parlor. Betting on bicycle, motorboat, motorcycle and horse racing is also legal and extremely popular. There are concerns about the fate of pachinko if casinos are allowed to open, though many of the major players in the pachinko industry are the same people lobbying for the legalization of gambling. Ultimately, the fate of the game lies in the players’ hands. If they choose to frequent parlors, even with the option of casinos available, this staple of the Japanese urban landscape will remain unchanged.