Unable to overcome his compulsion to play pachinko, long-time Tokyo expat Wayne Smith created an unconventional strategy to limit his ability to gamble away his hard-earned money — keep all his cash in rolls of ¥500 coins.
“¥500 coins cannot be used in pachinko (machines) and cannot be changed at the weekend, as banks are closed, or after 6 p.m. weekdays,” he says. “Also, coins will survive a fire at home and are more cumbersome for burglars to steal.”
Smith, who spoke under a pseudonym due to concerns that public knowledge of his addiction could have negative ramifications on his job, says he used to go to the bank every weekday after pay day and withdraw the maximum limit of a ¥25,000 roll (50 x ¥500) until he had emptied his bank account. That way, he was never short of spending money, but wouldn’t blow it all on the machines.
“At one time I had almost ¥2 million in rolls of ¥500 coins,” he says. “It is a good chunk of metal to have.”
Smith’s strategy of turning all his cash into metal may appear to be somewhat eccentric, but it illustrates the ends to which problem gamblers will go. “It’s not ideal but short of cutting off my right hand, it was the best method I found for controlling my gambling addiction,” he says.
Smith eventually quit pachinko altogether for six months using this method, although he acknowledges he has relapsed on numerous occasions and still plays the machines today, although not as much as he used to.
At root of his addiction to pachinko, he says, is a longing for the rush of positive feeling that follows a big win.
“It is addiction and it is euphoria,” he says. “Addiction is euphoria, really.
Etsuko Sato, a 43-year-old resident of Tokyo who also spoke under a pseudonym because of job recrimination concerns, says she was initially attracted to pachinko by the relatively small amounts she could gamble with upfront. Most machines in parlors in Tokyo, she says, start from as little as ¥1,000.
“The excitement sucks you in,” she says, “but the longer you keep winning, the more boring it becomes. For me, it’s less about the high as it is about the transition of emotions you get in the process — from simply playing to winning.”
Smith says pachinko machines are set up so that players constantly think they’re on the edge of a sizeable pay out that, most of the time, doesn’t eventuate.
“Pachinko is all about cliffhangers,” he says. “You go in there thinking ‘I am going to win’ and the initial ¥5,000 is all adrenalin — and you come so close. Then after two hours of losing, you become just cold. There is a bad taste in your mouth and the euphoria is gone.”
Smith says a sense of unreality typically consumes him while playing the game regarding the large volume of money being spent.
“You go in there and you put 20 grand or 30 grand into the machine and it is like just credits. It feels like nothing,” he says. “And then you go into a store and you see a broccoli for ¥250 and you think, ‘That is expensive, I’m not buying that.’ And you have just blown 400 bucks on pachinko.”
Despite spending a considerable amount of money on pachinko, Smith’s addiction has never caused him serious financial difficulty, something he puts down to the fact he has a high income. Yet he still regrets spending the money in such a wasteful fashion. “If I could get all the money back I have spent at pachinko, it would be well over ¥10 million,” he says. “I could have bought a house by now.”
For some compulsive gamblers, however, the habit is much more costly than mere lost opportunity.
Naoko Takiguchi, a professor of sociology at Otani University, says she has seen first-hand the damage that can be done to someone’s life.
In addition to her academic work, Takiguchi also runs rehabilitation and education programs for problem gamblers and their families in the Kansai area, and works with first-time offenders in domestic prisons who have gambling problems.
“It leads to debt, poverty, crime, suicide, loss of employment, parents fighting about money, arrest and the shame that it brings to the family, divorce, and children developing gambling and other addiction(-related) problems such as eating disorders,” Takiguchi says.
“It is not just the gambler who suffers, but the whole family, especially the children,” Takiguchi says, adding that others affected by gambling typically include “friends and colleagues, and even society at large.”
Although the problem of gambling addiction in Japan is “very serious,” Takiguchi says a lack of government acknowledgement makes it difficult to gauge its true depth. “We do not have a national prevalence rate (for gambling addiction),” she says. “This shows the government does not care about gambling problems.”
Yet data for the size and scale of the pachinko industry itself is available, and Takiguchi believes this suggests a massive population of unrecognized problem gamblers potentially exists in Japan.
“Japan has by far the largest number of gaming machines in the world,” Takiguchi wrote in a 2011 report titled “Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies” that she co-authored with Richard Rosenthal. “In 2006, there were 4.9 million pachinko and pachi-slot machines in the country, which equates to one machine for every 26 people. By way of comparison, the United States has the largest number of machines outside of Japan, a total of 740,475 gaming machines in 2006, or one machine for every 404 people.”
Yet it is not just the number of pachinko machines in the country that is astounding — the money the industry generates is even more mind-boggling.
Pachinko is estimated to be worth around ¥20 trillion annually — about half the revenue generated each year by the top three Japanese automakers.
Pachinko also accounts for a significant chunk of the country’s leisure market as a whole. While expenditure on sports-related activities accounted for just 6 percent of the leisure industry in 2012, pachinko accounted for almost 30 percent, according to a report compiled by the Japan Productivity Center.
Remarkably, despite the gargantuan size of the pachinko industry, gambling is still technically illegal in Japan.
The 2007 Penal Code states that a person who gambles habitually shall be punished by a fine of up to ¥500,000 or imprisonment with labor for up to three years.
Yet this same law also provides an exception, stating that the prohibition doesn’t apply “when the bet of a thing is made only for momentary amusement.”
It is through the manipulation of this legal loophole in domestic gambling law that the pachinko industry has been able to prosper — officially, it is defined as gaming, not gambling.
In order to maintain this false front, no cash winnings are paid out inside the parlor itself. Instead winners receive “special prizes” — usually plastic tokens of an agreed monetary value containing a sliver of gold — and these are exchanged for cash at a window adjacent to the parlor.
By locating the booth where the prize money is handed over off the premises, the pretence that pachinko is a game, and not real gambling, is maintained.
Takiguchi says pachinko’s legal status as gaming rather than gambling means the industry remains largely unregulated, and also allows the government to turn a blind eye to the issue of addiction.
“Although 61 percent of electronic gaming machines in the world are in Japan, our government has done almost nothing to respond to gambling-related problems,” Takiguchi says. “What can we expect? Virtually no responsible gambling policies are in place, nor any training system to train gambling-addiction treatment experts. No ethical code has ever been established.”
Although pachinko is very much a Japanese invention, the inspiration for it came from the Corinth Game, a children’s game based on bagatelle that was developed in the United States and imported to Japan in 1924.
The Corinth Game, or korinto gēmu, which is also believed to be the inspiration for pinball, became hugely popular. It was a common sight on the counters of candy stores at the time and children would win candy or pieces of fruit if they managed to attain a high score. Soon adults began to take interest and pledge money for prizes such as a cigarettes or soap.
The Corinth Game, or pachi-pachi as it came to be known due to the clicking sounds the balls made, then morphed with the British wall game Circle of Pleasure. It incorporated many of the game’s features — in particular, the vertical rather than horizontal alignment (a space-saving bonus in crowded Japan) — and pachinko was born.
Nagoya is credited as being the home of pachinko, with the first license for a “gachinko hall” issued there in 1930.
Yet the nascent life of the game was to be short-lived and all pachinko parlors were closed by the government in 1938 in a bid to aid the “war effort.”
It wasn’t until 1946 that pachinko had its second birth, once again in Nagoya.
According to Sung-Yoon Lee, professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a pachinko historian, the game’s genesis in Nagoya may also explain its often-talked-about Korean connection. Lee says Nagoya was heavily bombed during World War II because it was a major industrial city and the largest manufacturer of combat aircraft in the country.
“At the end of the war, the damaged factories had a surplus of ball bearings, which were turned into the small metal balls for pachinko machines,” Lee says. “Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were taken from the Korean Peninsula in the 1930s and ’40s by force to work in factories and mines in Japan. The end of the war created natural conditions for a large Korean population in a major industrial city to go into this industry.”
Lee says the 600,000 Koreans who remained in Japan after World War II — 1.5 million returned home to the Korean Peninsula — were stripped of their Japanese citizenship. He says this, accompanied by a climate of prejudice, meant job opportunities for them were scarce.
“The Koreans in Japan faced discrimination and had few avenues for accruing wealth,” Lee says.
“Although the (beginnings of the) pachinko industry had been around since the 1920s, it offered an unconventional and potentially lucrative means to a livelihood for Koreans,” he says. “Its links to organized crime, shady cash transactions and the social stigma of shame associated with gambling made it a very unattractive industry to mainstream Japanese.”
According to Lee, an estimated 80 percent of pachinko parlors in Japan are currently owned by ethnic Koreans, 10 percent by Taiwanese and the rest by Japanese. Taiwan is the only country other than Japan where pachinko is popular, a fact often attributed to the legacy of Japanese colonialism.
The most well-known and powerful of these Koreans is Han Chang-woo, who illegally entered Japan in 1947 and is the owner of the pachinko management company Maruhan, which controls an estimated 10 percent of the industry.
Han has a current personal net worth of ¥276 billion and is ranked by Forbes as the 12th richest person in Japan.
A persistent and popular myth in Japan is that much of the money generated from the pachinko industry is funneled to North Korea. Lee says it is impossible to know exactly how much money coming directly from the pachinko industry has made its way into Pyongyang coffers, but in the 1990s several hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars purportedly flowed into North Korea each year from ethnic Korean businessmen in Japan, and it is likely some of this came from pachinko.
“However, the Japanese government has cracked down on such remittances since the spotlight fell on the abduction issue in the early 2000s,” Lee says.
U.S. citizen Mark Jones, who asked that his real name not be used due to fears about his existing employer knowing about his past gambling problems, says he was already a problem gambler long before he even came to Japan, let alone set foot in a pachinko parlor.
He says he gambled heavily at casinos, mainly playing blackjack, in the 1980s in Las Vegas and Atlantic City but managed to stop with the help of the Twelve Step Program in 1987.
Fifty-year-old Jones, who now lives in Nagoya, first came to Japan in 1993 to work as an English teacher in the Kansai area. By this point in his life, Jones thought he had left his gambling addiction long behind him and says he first went into a pachinko parlor just to use the toilet.
“Eventually I got curious and I stuck ¥500 into a machine,” he says. “Within a year … I was blowing half of my salary. It was gambling and I got caught.”
Jones says he would finish teaching his last class and then head straight to a pachinko parlor to play for the last hour or so it was open. “On other days I didn’t have classes until the late afternoon, so I would play all morning and on the weekends I would play all day,” he says.
This pattern continued for about 18 months until Jones decided to do something about his problem. However, he says there were few options available to seek treatment. “I already knew I had a problem,” he says. “I had been in the Twelve Step Program in the States but there were no meetings, no way to get help at that time in Osaka in 1993. That is why I helped set up meetings with some Japanese people in 1994.”
Jones called the Yokohama branch of Gamblers Anonymous — one of the few in existence in the country at the time — and a member there put him in contact with a couple of local people who wanted to form a support group.
Together, they started the first Gamblers Anonymous branch in the Kansai region. Only three regular members attended the early meetings, although the numbers increased after Mainichi Shimbun published an article about the group in 1996. Despite a couple of relapses, Jones says he hasn’t gambled for more than four years. However, he still goes to meetings once a week because it “maintains the abstinence.”
“Any program someone goes to, they don’t just go and clean up and stop,” he says. “The problem with this kind of addiction is that it is progressive — that particular aspect of it never changes. It is not a curable thing. It is something you have all the time.”
Jones says he no longer regularly feels the urge to gamble but is always on guard in case something sets it off. Just walking past a pachinko parlor, he says, can sometimes be difficult. “I just try and ignore them [the urges] and I try and do other things with my life,” he says. “I have hobbies and other interests now, whereas back then, gambling was all I wanted to do.”
Where to get help: www.gajapan.jp