Pachinko: Follow the bouncing ball
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 21, 2007
A pachinko fanatic since the age of 7, Tetsuya Makino couldn’t resist the temptation of the seven pachinko parlors he had to pass on the way from the train station to his university campus, so he dropped out of school to play pachinko full time.
Makino lived solely off his pachinko winnings from 1985 to 1987. He usually raked in 200,000 yen a month, with his haul climbing to as high as 6 million yen when he was lucky. To put this in perspective, the exchange rate in those days was roughly 230 yen to the dollar. I came to Japan as an English teacher in 1984, and during my first year on the job I was paid the same 200,000 a month to work eight hour days, five and a half days a week. Public school teachers in their first year on the job right out of university earned 150,000 yen a month.
For an insight on how pachinko exemplifies certain aspects of the Japanese and their popular culture, consider that gambling is prohibited unless conducted by a government-related body (such as the lottery).
What does Makino do for a living now? He’s the manager of the Pachinko Museum (Japanese only) in the Higashi Ueno district of Tokyo, of course! (Here’s a Japanese language guide to the site with a map for easy access. And here’s another Japanese language site with close-up photos of some of the older machines and Makino adjusting the nails in one of the machines.
Try this site for a basic explanation of the game that has 17 million players nationwide and reaps an estimated 20 trillion yen in sales annually. Here’s an article with a wealth of incidental information, including how one goes about converting one’s winnings to cash. Some of the information is exaggerated (I wouldn’t describe the shop music as martial) and a bit outdated—Takako Doi was Speaker of the House from 1993 to 1996—but it’s worth reading and does bring up the underworld connections. It fails to mention, however, that many pachinko parlor operators are Korean or of Korean ancestry, and that the profits sent to North Korea are an important source of foreign exchange for that country. (The Japanese have cracked down on this lately, however.) This website does bring it up, and provides a rough estimate on the nationality of the operators.
Here’s a superb article from Fukuoka Now in English by a foreigner who’s a self-confessed pachinko fanatic. It presents a more personalized view of the game and how it can become part of one’s daily life. This article summarizes the lengths a Chinese-Japanese gang went to rip off pachinko parlors in Kyushu. Their modus operandi required brains, talent, skill, and a lot of nerve—just imagine what they could have accomplished had they applied themselves to running a legal business.
If all this talk about pachinko has gotten you excited enough to try it yourself, you can buy your own used machine here. Machine turnover in shops is very rapid, and the machines are restored, so they should be in good shape. Finally, here’s the English site of exchange-listed Heiwa, one of the largest machine manufacturers.
I’ve never been very interested in gambling, but I tried pachinko once during my first year in Japan. It was a rainy Sunday in winter and I was walking around just observing the people and the city. I wandered into an older parlor with few customers. Most of the players were in newer shops across the street. I played for a while, winning and losing a little in turn. Then one of the shop’s employees beckoned me to follow him. He took me a few aisles over and directed me to a particular machine. I sat down, started playing, and won the equivalent of US$100 in about 10 minutes.
I left the shop, cashed out, and never went back.