The endless lure of pachinko

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.

 

Pachinko started to struggle several years ago after operators were ordered to invest in new machines with smaller payouts amid allegations of widespread tax fraud. Major players duly cleaned up their act, setting aside areas for women and smokers, and conducting proper audits.

Mark Schreiber, an American journalist who covers Japan’s gambling industry, estimates millions of recent retirees have given pachinko another shot in the arm.

“The baby-boomers have decent pensions and not much to do with it. They don’t have the kind of money to play around on the stock market, but they have time on their hands.

“These are guys who worked hard to put their kids through college and now have empty nests. They grew up with pachinko so they intuitively know what it’s all about.”

The industry cleverly skirts Japan’s strict anti-gambling laws. Winners don’t receive a single yen on the premises. Instead they trade in their trays of steel balls for prizes, coupons or cards, which they exchange for hard cash at hole-in-the-wall counters outside.

The competition for new converts has also sparked ingenious marketing campaigns promising higher profit margins on certain days and reducing fees to as low as one yen per ball.

As a pachinko pro, Takeo Takahashi needs no such inducement. “I have tried to spend less, but I still go just about every day, sometimes just to see which machines seem to be paying out,” says the 40-year-old truck driver from Fujisawa, south of Tokyo.

Takahashi’s biggest payout was 130,000 yen ($1,313), and he has lost count of the number of times his winnings have topped 100,000 yen. But he loses big, too — sometimes to the tune of 70,000 yen ($707) in a day.

“But I love the thrill of seeing all those balls flooding into my tray. Even when I know I’ve got enough balls to pocket a nice profit, I find it hard to quit.”

I could probably do with some coaching from Takahashi-san. In the time it takes the salaryman at the next machine to finish his cigarette, I have exhausted my supply of ball bearings. Every last ball has bypassed the crucial gate and disappeared into the machine’s depths.

I decide it is time to leave, 10 dollars down, but not yet down and out.

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