Museum rises from passion for pachinko

Lifelong obsession with the game turns college dropout into expert

by Reiji Yoshida

Tetsuya Makino, 40, has devoted most of his life to a game that has fascinated him since he was 7 years old: pachinko.

Makino first started playing with the machines at a department store in Tokyo. Now he manages a pachinko museum that boasts 148 machines, many of them admired as rare and historic mementos of the game’s industry.

“I am really grateful for my encounter with pachinko. I wanted to say thank you to pachinko and wanted to return something” to the game, Makino said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

The vertical pinball game, in which steel balls are released from the top and players try to get them into winning holes, causing the machine to discharge additional balls into a tray at the bottom that can be exchanged for prizes or cash, has increasingly become more high-tech as the game evolves.

The Pachinko Hakubutsukan (Pachinko Museum) is on the third floor of a building situated in the middle of Tokyo’s Higashi-Ueno district near JR Ueno Station. The area is often dubbed “Pachinko Village” because of its cluster of hundreds of pachinko-related companies.

The much-loved game now boasts an estimated 17 million players nationwide and is believed to generate 20 trillion yen in year sales.

But few pachinko machine manufacturers are interested in preserving past models, and that has made the museum’s collection rare. Parlors constantly replace old machines with new ones to keep fickle players engaged.

All but seven of the 148 machines in the museum, run by pachinko parlor chain Yamashita Shokai, are part of Makino’s personal collection.

Makino collects the machines to record the history of his love affair with pachinko. Probably none of the 17 million players in Japan is as erudite and devoted as Makino.

The museum’s permanent exhibition includes a model from 1946. Only around 10 are believed to exist today.

Another is an early 1950 version of Masamura Gauge, which revolutionized the industry by introducing a complicated layout of nails that cause the steel balls to bounce around in various directions.

When he first encountered pachinko, Makino saw another boy who could play much better. That led Makino, who fancied himself as a perfectionist, to try to master everything about pachinko, he said.

“I was a kid who tried to master all the games in an open-air festival on the street. Maybe that was my starting point,” Makino recalled.

Makino spent more hours in pachinko parlors than in school. Since dropping out of college, he hopped from one job to another in the industry to learn all he could about the game.

His career has run the gamut from professional player to parlor employee, machine salesman and even adviser to parlors.

“There were seven pachinko parlors on the way to my college from the train station. I couldn’t pass them up,” said Makino, explaining why he dropped out. Makino was winning so much money from the game that two of the seven parlors decided to bar him, he recalled.

From 1985 and 1987, he subsisted solely on his winnings.

In those two years, he consistently earned around 200,000 yen a month, and sometimes as much as 6 million yen if he was lucky, he said.

Asked to explain the secret of the nation’s love with the the game, he pointed out the fact that any form of gambling, despite the ubiquitous existence of pachinko parlors, has been officially prohibited in Japan unless it is run by a government-related body.

Even though everyone recognizes pachinko as gambling, the government has allowed it to thrive for decades in a legal gray zone.

The process of making money is simple. Winning players are rewarded with goods ranging from DVDs to ties and stationery, according to the number of steel balls they accumulate.

Those prizes can be immediately sold to a prize buyer, whose counter is always located next to the parlor. The buy-back agency then returns the purchased prizes back to the parlor.

The agency and parlor are technically two separate bodies and thus do not violate the gambling prohibition.

“If casinos or other gambling are openly allowed in Japan, pachinko may lose its popularity,” Makino said.