What’s it really like to win?

by Setsuko Kamiya

Everyone who buys a takarakuji ticket dreams of winning big, but what is it like to actually hit the jackpot? The Japan Times spoke with a 36-year-old who won a 100 million yen jackpot seven years ago, and heard how his win brought him a fortune — and some hard lessons in life as well.

It was the winter of 1986 when Satoshi Nagashima (not his real name) bought his first takarakuji ticket. One day, Nagashima, who was then a 19-year-old cram-school student, was asked by his parents to buy some tickets for them on his way to school in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. He decided to get a few for himself, too.

One of the 20 lottery tickets he bought that day had the same six-digit number as the 50 million yen jackpot winner. Nagashima’s heart leapt — but then he noticed his ticket’s two-digit group number did not match up. Still, he walked away with a prize of 100,000 yen. Talk about beginner’s luck.

From that moment on, buying lottery tickets became Nagashima’s hobby. He even made up his own routine, believing this would bring him luck: Buy 30 tickets the day they went on sale, and at a particular booth in Ginza. Most of all, he told himself, be confident. “I always believed that I would win,” he said.

Through the next decade, Nagashima — by now a computer-system engineer at a Tokyo firm — continued to play the lottery. He estimates he spent more than 1 million yen on it during that time.

In the summer of 1996 he bought 30 lottery tickets, as usual. Proceeds from this draw were slated to help fund the reconstruction of Hyogo Prefecture after the previous year’s Great Hanshin Earthquake. The jackpot was a cool 100 million yen — the highest ever.

Busy at work, Nagashima forgot to check the winning numbers the day they were announced. But a few days later he finally sat down on his living-room sofa and checked his tickets.

It was then he found he was holding the jackpot winner in his hands.

His heart began to beat fast, though experience reminded him to look carefully. “I double-checked the jackpot numbers three times, and they were a perfect match,” said Nagashima, who broke the news right away to his parents and brother.

Even when he showed his family his winning ticket, they had a hard time believing him. Nagashima knew he had to have the prize money in the bank before the reality of his win would hit home. As it was just four days before his summer vacation, he decided to wait till then to go to the Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank (today incorporated into the Mizuho Bank), which administered the lottery on behalf of local governments.

The next 96 hours of Nagashima’s life were filled more with anxiety than joy.

First of all, he had to decide where to keep the winning ticket. “If I took it with me in my wallet, chances were I might lose it. But if I left it at home, it could get stolen,” he explained. After thorough consideration, he made up his mind to leave the ticket at home.

The next question was where to hide it. “It had to be a place where burglars wouldn’t bother looking,” Nagashima said. He finally chose to conceal it in a CD case — being careful to place it under the disc.

Nagashima’s hobby was well known to his colleagues, but he decided not to break the news immediately. He tried to act as normally as possible, but was too overwhelmed with excitement — and so concerned about the safety of the ticket — that he wasn’t able to concentrate at work.

“Every time I came home from work, I washed my hands and went straight to the CD case and opened it,” said Nagashima. He peeked into the case at least 10 times daily just to make sure that it was still there. “I even checked right after I got out of the bath,” he recalled. “I was standing there in just my underpants.”

Finally, his vacation arrived and he set off for the bank in high spirits. Although normally a casual dresser, that day Nagashima recalls wearing a jacket and tie. “Somehow I felt I had to look smart so they would believe me.”

His happiness was postponed once again, however, when he was told that the number had to be confirmed at the bank’s headquarters. This would take four more days. Nagashima was handed a receipt, which he again had to keep safe. “It was another four days’ ordeal,” Nagashima recalled. The paper was too big to fit in the CD case, so he hid it between the pages of a comic book.

Finally, everything was confirmed and the prize money went into his bank account. Nagashima didn’t need to see a pile of bank notes — he was just relieved and delighted to see a row of zeros printed in his bank book.

It may seem odd, but in all his years of playing the lottery, Nagashima never daydreamed of how he would use a windfall. He hoped to win, of course, but that seemed like an end in itself. “It’s the same with baseball,” said Nagashima, who is a big sports fan. “The more often you get up to bat, the better chance you have of hitting the ball.”

Having finally won a fortune, what this slugger did was pretty down-to-earth. He paid back his parents for all his senior high school expenses, his cram school year and four more in college. He traded in his old car for a new Toyota. To safeguard his cash, he started making foreign-currency deposits and played the stock market to educate himself about the financial world.

Didn’t he splash out on anything? “I allowed myself to go to the United States to watch Ichiro play, or to see a football game,” he said. “I saw a couple of soccer games during the World Cup 2002 here, too.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing; there were lessons to be learned as well.

While some winners withhold the news of their good fortune from others, Nagashima told 10 trusted colleagues — on condition that they keep it secret. “I told them because they’d always said that no one ever gets lucky with takarakuji. I wanted to prove that it is something you can win,” Nagashima said.

To Nagashima’s dismay, however, his “secret” was soon widely known. He swiftly figured out who was spreading the story. “It made me realize who I could trust and who not,” he said.

As the news spread, Nagashima sensed that some people changed their attitude toward him, although he himself didn’t alter his daily spending habits. “I don’t think I changed, but I realized that some people measure a person according to the money they have,” he said.

Nagashima quit his job about a year after winning the biggie to concentrate on starting his own business. He had dreamed of doing this since his early 20s, though he admits his good luck enabled him to bring the timing forward. Indeed, he knows that winning that jackpot brought him experiences — both bitter and sweet — that he would probably otherwise never have had.

Some tease him that the lottery win has used up his lifetime’s allowance of luck. But he disagrees.

“No one is blessed with luck,” he said. “What’s important is realizing that there’s a chance that you might get lucky — and acting on it.”

As a result, buying lottery tickets continues to be his hobby today.

“My goal is to hit a grand slam with the Jumbo lottery,” said this dauntless winner.