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.
During the Edo Period (1603-1867), members of the ruling samurai class were discouraged from gambling in the Buke Shohatto (laws governing the samurai), issued in 1615. Its second article read: “Drinking parties and gaming amusements must be kept within due bounds. To be addicted to venery and to make a pursuit of gambling is the first step toward the loss of one’s domain.”
Many samurai chose to ignore this injunction, reveling in the so-called three depravities: nomu, utsu, kau (drinking, gambling and whoring).
In the case of commoners, however, the laws against gambling were applied far more strictly. Habitual offenders were sentenced to floggings, exile or even death. An edict issued in 1711 under Shogun Ienobu prohibited “gambling of every description.” During the rule of Shogun Yoshimune (1716-45), bakuto were punished by heavy fines. Losers were also given the right to bring suit against gamblers in court, and if they won, could have their losses reimbursed.
Unable to halt the practice, the authorities in 1718 made a distinction between light betting (wagers of under 50 mon) and larger bets; petty gambling, such as lotteries, came to be tolerated as a means of controlling the populace.
But games — with names like chobo-ichi, bin korogashi, oome-kome, shishita, shoso-shiroku, kitsune and yoido — continued to proliferate among the townsfolk. By 1784, chobo-ichi, a type of dice game, had become so popular that a strip of gambling sheds ran for an entire ri (3.75 km) along the road from Asakusa to Senju. The Asakusa area was to remain the center for Edo’s gamblers and other roughnecks well into modern times.
In addition to dice, many games used karuta, small cards with multicolored patterns, introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century. In the game of zanmai (three-card), each card represented a number between 1 and 9, with the winner’s hand determined by the sum total of the cards. (The game was scored similar to blackjack, only the winning number was 19 instead of 21.) One losing combination was made up of cards representing 8, 9 and 3, totaling 20. These three numbers — read yatsu, ku and san but pronounced ya-ku-sa — came to mean something totally worthless, a loser. Shortened to “yakuza,” the term was adopted by gamblers as a promotional ploy, as if to imply, “I’m a loser, so you’ve got a better chance of winning.”
As the power of the Tokugawa shogunate began to wane in the 19th century, gambling became widespread in rural areas, leading to running battles between authorities and heavily armed gangs. One legendary brigand was Kunisada Chuji, who eluded authorities in northern Kanto for more than a decade before being captured and executed in 1850.
After Japan officially ended its policy of national isolation, new forms of gambling from abroad caught on quickly. Western-style horse racing had already arrived in the late Edo Period, although the Sport of Kings did not become regulated by law until 1923. China — another land of enthusiastic gamblers — became the source of many new games, such as one called “18” (pronounced chii-haa). Mah-jongg, still popular today, became widespread here from the 1920s.
By the Taisho Era (1912-1926), gamblers had become an integral part of the community. In Jun’ichi Saga’s “The Gambler’s Tale” (1991, Kodansha International), reissued in 1995 under the title “Confessions of a Yakuza,” an aging member of the yakuza “brotherhood” named Eiji Ijichi looks back on his rise at Dewaya, a gambling den in the Asakusa district, from a young apprentice to its boss.
Although he knew the gambling world intimately, Ijichi viewed himself as a righteous, principled individual and clearly had little sympathy for the compulsions that drove people to gamble away their livelihood. Saga quotes him as saying: “A professional gambler never worries about where a customer got the money he has to play with. . . . The cash you see him holding in his hand might have come stripping the quilts off his wife as she lay sick in bed, or by hocking all her kimonos . . .
“But you can’t stop people from thinking their lucky number will come up. It’s pretty frightening, really, when you think about it . . . ”