When your number’s up …


Emiko Kameyama has two close friends she likes to hang out with. In addition to their monthly dinners and the occasional trips they take together, two years ago the trio began a new tradition — playing the Jumbo takarakuji (lottery).

With their eyes set on winning the first prize of 200 million yen, the three friends from Nagoya spend 3,000 yen buying 10 tickets for each of the thrice-yearly Jumbo takarakuji from a lottery booth near Nagoya Station that’s famous for having had many winners.

“The woman born in March goes to buy them, because Pisceans are supposed to be luckiest when it comes to the lottery. Then my other friend makes copies of the 10 tickets and distributes them to us,” Kameyama explains. “I’m the one who just prays,” she adds with a laugh.

Kameyama 49, and her 53- and 46-year-old friends then just have to wait and hope — and dream — that the six-digit number and two-digit group on one of their tickets will match those selected by the machine that determines the Jumbo takarakuji winners in June, August and December. Of course it’s all down to sheer luck, but it’s the lottery’s one certainty that keeps these ladies and millions of others coming back for more: If you do win the first prize, you’re an overnight millionaire — and you don’t even have to pay income tax on your fortune.

But a Jumbo takarakuji ticket bought from one of the nation’s 15,000 lottery booths isn’t the only way to get rich quick in Japan. First, there are takarakuji run in a similar way to the Jumbo but with lower first prizes — such as 20 million yen and 10 million yen — that are held occasionally during the year.

And then there are three other types of takarakuji, each of them drawn weekly — and each a little more interactive.

For the games called Numbers, Mini Loto and Loto 6, which are each 200 yen a shot, players select numbers themselves and mark their cards in one of several different ways. After that, if your numbers come up — in the right combination — you win, though the amount varies depending on the number of other cards also marked the winning way.

If all this is too challenging — or you simply don’t set your sights as high as tens of millions of yen — there’s always Scratch, with its 1 million yen top prize. To play this, all it takes is 200 yen for a ticket — and something to scrape off the wax to reveal the hidden pictures or numbers.

But whatever the odds against winning, and despite the dwindling fortunes of other publicly-run forms of gambling — such as horse, motorboat and bicycle racing — in these deflationary times, takarakuji marches steadily on, pulling in ever more punters and swelling the coffers of the 47 prefectural governments and 13 cities authorized to operate some kind of lottery. According to the “Leisure White Paper 2003” put out by the Japan Productivity Center for Socio-Economic Development, in 2002 takurakuji participants reached a record high of 45 million — who between them, according to the Japan Lottery Association, shelled out a record 1 trillion yen in fiscal 2001 and then 1.092 trillion yen in fiscal 2002.

Ease of participation is an advantage. “Gambling such as horse-race betting [with so many factors to evaluate] have become more of a thing for enthusiasts; it’s also not easy for people to participate in those activities in the course of a normal day,” says Hisaya Yanagida, a researcher at JPCSED who took part in compiling the White Paper.

The rise is also partly due to the introduction of new takarakuji like Numbers, Mini Loto and Loto 6 in the past decade. According to Masatomi Toriumi, an official in the takarakuji division of the finance bureau of Tokyo Metropolitan Government, these games allowing participants to choose their own numbers were introduced in response to demands from lottery fans for more variations.

But most of all, it’s the big money that attracts people. The first-prize money had gradually been increasing over the decades, but it leaped to 200 million yen after the lottery law was revised in 1998. At that time, the maximum prize money was raised from 200,000 times to 1 million times the price of a unit. For Loto 6 — which is the only lottery with a roll-over system — should one week’s jackpot go unclaimed, the law permits its maximum prize money to be 2 million times the price of a ticket — theoretically, up to 400 million yen.

“There is no form of gambling that gives you as much money as takarakuji if you win,” says Ichiro Tanioka, professor and president of Osaka University of Commerce who has researched people’s lottery behavior. “More people purchase takarakuji tickets when the first-prize money is larger than when there are more opportunities to win but with smaller amounts of prize money,” Taninoka observes.

Lotteries are now established revenue-raisers for governments, both local and national, around the world.

In Japan, the takarakuji launched in October 1945 was first promoted as a fundraiser to help rebuild the nation’s ruined postwar cities. Later, as economic growth forged ahead in the 1960s and ’70s, special lotteries also helped to support major events like 1970’s Osaka Expo and the Winter Olympics in Sapporo in 1972.

Currently, local governments receive 40 percent of a ticket’s price, 46 percent is paid out in prizes and 14 percent is used for design, printing and promotion and sales of the lotteries — jobs largely taken care of by Mizuho Bank.

Winners of any prize have a year to claim their money, but after that it is forfeited as an “acquisitive prescription” and is acquired by local governments. Last year alone, an astonishing 24.3 billion yen was unclaimed in this way, according to Mizuho Bank.

Although profits from takarakuji are “an important source of income for local governments, which must use them for public enterprises as stipulated by the law,” as Toriumi of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government confirmed, precisely how the funds are used is left up to the prefectures and municipalities. Hence, while some may pour their gains from gambling into their roads, rivers or parks, others might spend it on care for the elderly. “Compared with grants from the national government for very particular purposes, this is a flexible budget for us to use,” Toriumi said.

However, Tanioka of Osaka University of Commerce sees this as a problem. In particular, he points out that the lottery law, despite having been revised more than 10 times since 1948, still says that local governments can operate a takarakuji when there is “a special financial need because of war damage.”

“Although that initial goal was achieved, local governments couldn’t resist continuing the lottery because it was attractive. Now, though, takarakuji’s role and position in society must be overhauled,” Tanioka said.

His research in 2002 revealed that the leading group of lottery spenders comprises those with lower income and education levels, and those desperately in need of a large sum of money — to pay off debts, for example. “This is like a tax on the socially weak — which local governments can then use almost however they want,” he said, stressing that the purposes to which takarakuji income is put need to be more tightly specified.

All that, of course, is only of academic interest to the millions for whom the takarakuji has no appeal at all.

For 31-year-old Koji Takizawa from Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, for instance, lotteries are just not exciting compared with the horse-race betting he does at least once a month. “In horse racing, there’s the thrill of seeing what you put your money on. So whether you win or lose, it’s fun,” he says. “But takarakuji is boring because there’s no room for guesswork.”

For the many people who play takarakuji, it’s simply about whether or not they will ever get lucky.

As for Kameyama and her friends, if that ever happens they have a written agreement to split the win three ways — into 66.66 million yen each. “It will be awesome if we win, but we buy tickets really for the fun of it,” says Kameyama, who has never won more than a 300 yen consolation prize. “Ninety percent of me thinks I will never win — but there’s that 10 percent saying I won’t win it if I’m not in it,” she says.

How will she spend the money if she ever wins? “I want to build a nice traditional-style ryokan in the Gero Spa area of Gifu Prefecture, and let my parents and relatives stay there as much as they like,” she says, briefly closing her eyes to live her dream. “Since both my husband and I work, I have no complaints about my own lifestyle, so I don’t mind using it like that.”