Pachinko is the most popular leisure activity in Japan, and for some it is much more than mere recreation. Between 40 and 50 million people–roughly a quarter of the population–play pachinko at least occasionally, and as many as 30 million are avid players. For many the garish neon signs, harsh bright lights and military-style marching music at the parlors produce a hypnotic effect that temporarily relieves the various stresses of their lives. Although the gambling aspect–the chance to win a quick return on a small “investment”–is an undeniable part of the appeal for all players, for a smaller number of pachinko professionals (called pachi-puro), the game can actually yield sizable earnings.
The Ingatbola88 game itself is fairly straightforward. Customers pay for a supply of steel balls about 3/8″ in diameter which are placed into a tray and automatically propelled into the machine by turning a dial handle. The old-style machines which used a thumb-operated flipper to propel the balls are now obsolete. Modeled after an early 20th century American pinball game called Corinthian (Korinto Gemu, first imported into Japan in the 1920s), the machine has been tilted vertically so that the seated customer can play the game and view the action with minimal effort. The balls shoot up and then cascade downward through a maze of pins toward a number of open slots. When a ball goes into a scoring slot, the machine pays off–with more balls. If any balls are left at the end of a session, the player takes them back to the counter where they are counted by machine. The player then receives a slip with the amount of the winnings printed on it, and the slip can be exchanged for prizes.
The prizes given by the parlors themselves are legal and consist mostly of items like crackers, pickled plums, cigarettes or candy, although some parlors offer a much wider range of household products and even home electronics. Virtually all pachinko parlors also award “special” prizes that can be exchanged for cash. These cash payoffs are not legal, and almost always involve underworld sources, but arrests or legal action are practically unheard of.
The underworld is extensively involved in the pachinko industry, which makes an inviting target because of the large number of cash transactions. The practice of under-reporting pachinko revenues is well known, and was even a focus of a popular movie by Juzo Itami, Marusa no Onna (A Taxing Woman, 1987), about a diligent investigator for the Japanese IRS. Despite some recent moves to tighten control over the industry and a few high-profile tax evasion prosecutions, there is a long-standing pattern of public and official indifference to the industry’s underworld ties, as well as tolerance for the accompanying illegal activities.
When a pachinko parlor customer opts for a “special” prize, he or she must take that prize elsewhere to receive the cash payoff. Because the cash payoffs are illegal, they cannot take place openly within the parlor itself. Typically customers are directed to back-alley locations where they make the exchange through what often is literally a hole in the wall.
The party on the other side of the hole in the wall (you will rarely see anything more than a hand when you make the exchange) is a kind of sub-contractor who dispenses cash for the special prizes and then sells the prizes back to the pachinko parlor with a fixed margin added on. Thus, the qualifications for operating this kind of exchange business are a certain amount of operating capital and a willingness to engage in an activity which is, strictly speaking, illegal. Special prizes are typically items such as bars of plastic with fake pearls embedded in them or flat “gold bars,” although these change periodically and seem to vary by geographical region.
An entire peripheral industry has grown up to serve hard-core players’ unquenchable drive to win. There are a host of specialty pachinko magazines (a recent trip to the Kinokuniya Bookstore in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s largest, turned up 17 different magazines on the newsstand), and even schools teaching the latest on how to beat new machines. If you’re interested in reading about pachinko, however, be forewarned that the magazines also feature lurid pictures of nearly nude women, mostly in ads for various types of “escort services.”
Part II of this story will examine the specific equipment used for pachinko, some winning tips, as well as industry changes.