The earliest reference to gambling in Japan -- found in the eighth-century, 31-volume "Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan)" -- states that in 685 AD, Emperor Temmu passed the time playing a dice game similar to backgammon called sugo-roku (double sixes). Once his successor Empress Jito assumed the throne, however, the pastime was banned.

By the middle of the Heian Period (794-1185), gambling had become rampant among the inhabitants of the capital, Heiankyo (present-day Kyoto). People wagered enthusiastically on practically anything: cock fights, horse races, cricket fights and fanciful competitions that made use of flowers, pictures or folding fans.

Around this time professional gamblers, known as bakuto, first appeared. Historical accounts gave details of brawls, killings and robberies involving gamblers, which led to increasingly strict measures to repress their activities. Between 1225 and 1284, the authorities issued no fewer than nine edicts prohibiting gambling.