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The endless lure of pachinko

Take a trip to Tokyo's Exciting Plaza Duo. You won't be alone.

An employee of Sammy Corporation demonstrates the company's pachislot machine named "hokutonoken," a fancier version of the classic slot machine, at their headquaters in Tokyo, July 11, 2005. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

TOKYO — My attempt at making a fast buck lasts all of 10 minutes.

As soon as I feed a 1,000-yen ($10) note into the machine, dozens of tiny steel ball bearings empty into the tray below.

Game on.

With my right hand I gently twist a wheel that automatically propels the balls to the top of the machine — a kind of high-tech, vertical pinball grid — before they cascade down, bobbing through a myriad of nail-like pins as they fall.

Now and then a ball plops into the central gate near the bottom of the machine, earning me yet more balls. If I keep this up I might just double my money.

My fellow players at Exciting Plaza Duo, a pachinko hall in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district, are in it for the long haul, happy to invest time and money in a favored machine in the hope of a big lunchtime payout.

It is a test of endurance. Your average pachinko parlour should come with prominently displayed health warnings.

Serious players spend hours crouched in front of a machine, a kind of vertical pinball-digital slot machine hybrid. The monotony is broken only by occasional breaks for caffeine and nicotine fixes. All the while, the air is filled with a cacophony of jingles, the clatter of steel balls and ear-splitting announcements over the PA system. And cigarette smoke.

In spite of all that, the prospect of winning big has made pachinko a national obsession that last year drew 14.5 million Japanese through the doors of 13,000 pachinko halls.

While other sectors of the economy go into freefall, the 23 trillion yen ($232 billion) pachinko industry is in the midst of a mini revival, driven by Japan’s demographics, inspired marketing campaigns — and its potential to quickly replenish empty wallets.

While other manufacturers count the cost of economic meltdown, makers of pachinko machines reported a slight jump last quarter, ending six years of decline, according to government figures. Maruhan, the country’s biggest pachinko operator with more than 240 halls nationwide, estimated its net income had risen 11 percent to 20 billion yen ($202 million) last fiscal year.

That contrasts with the struggling U.S. gambling industry, whose revenue fell by a record 15 percent in January amid the recession.

It is an ironic juxtaposition: pachinko, after all, began life as a slightly less sophisticated game called Corinthian Bagatelle in the United States — where it never caught on — before being introduced to Japan in the 1920s.

America's loss was Japan’s gain. In the postwar years of economic growth and rising income, pachinko grew into a multi-billion dollar industry that is now played by about 13 percent of the population. At its mid-1990s peak, there were almost 18,000 halls and 44 million players.