Masao Kitasawa, 58, is a lottery fan. He buys about 10 lottery tickets a week, spending roughly 10,000 yen a month to “dream a little.”

“My wife gave me a choice – give up lotteries and pachinko, or cancel my life insurance policy,” the taxi driver said. “No contest. The life insurance has to go.”

Kitasawa, who noted that his wife does not see things as he does, bought 20 yearend Jumbo lottery tickets at 300 yen apiece for a shot at the 300 million yen top prize, at odds of 10 million-to-one.

“It’s a choice between paying 20,000 yen a month (in insurance premium) for money I won’t see while I’m alive, and spending a little a week for a bit of pleasure,” said Kitasawa, who owned an eyeglass manufacturing company in Iwate Prefecture before it went under about five years ago.

Kitasawa may not be your typical player of the lottery, or “takara-kuji.” But public-run lotteries — which some pundits caution against as a form of gambling that increasingly draws money from the pockets of the relatively poor — continue to be popular amid the prolonged economic slump.

The yearend Jumbo of 2000 rang up 234.5 billion yen in sales, the largest in five years, according to the bond office in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s finance bureau, which tallies the nationwide total. Takara-kuji sales for the whole year came in at more than 1 trillion yen, a record, according to Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank, which administers the lottery.

This is despite — or because of — tightening purse strings, and comes as a bit of good news for cash-strapped municipalities, who get 40 percent of the proceeds from lottery tickets to spend on public works. They smile even more fondly on the lottery’s grinning whale mascot, since the public has been abandoning other forms of publicly-run gambling.

According to the Japan Leisure Association, household spending on racetracks, speedboat racing and cycling courses fell 6.1 percent, while spending on lottery tickets rose 4.2 percent from the previous year, the third straight year of growth.

Sales terminals are decorated with “maneki-neko,” or figurines of cats with a paw raised to lure prosperity, as well as signs advertising the prizes won with tickets from the booth.

“It’s almost an end-of-the-year tradition,” said Maki Ishii, a Japanese language teacher. “Everyone bought a few in my family when I was growing up, and we watched the drawing on TV together.”

In times of trouble, Japanese officials have traditionally been quick to look to lotteries to raise extra cash.

In July 1945, the government sold “victory tickets” for 10 yen a piece, offering 100,000 yen for the top prize. But the war ended before the drawing date, and ticket holders were left with what they called “loser tickets.”

Soon afterward, the government used lotteries to rein in runaway inflation and absorb extra cash in the market.

But some question whether publicly-run lotteries are a fair and healthy way of allocating wealth.

“The new ticket buyers are poorer. They are willing to pay for something to hope for,” says Ichiro Tanioka, president of the Osaka University of Commerce, who teaches a class called “Gambling and Society.”

Tanioka is a proponent of legalizing casinos as an effective way to secure extra cash for local governments, provided that a sizable portion of proceeds goes to fighting crime.

He admits that, just like casinos, lottery tickets appeal most to those who can least afford to waste that bit of spare cash — cash that local governments claim will go to the general good.

“It is a mistake to believe that just because the ‘game’ element in lotteries is limited, people will not spend more than they should,” he adds.

The link between lotteries and vices commonly associated with other forms of gambling is something municipalities are quick to repudiate.

“Lotteries are different,” said one public official at Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s bond office.

“People do not lose themselves to them, and it does not cultivate a fondness for gambling,” the official says of the institution that raked in 399.9 billion yen for public works projects at 4,200 sales terminals across the nation in fiscal 2000.

But occasions for playing the lottery are on the rise.

Currently, publicly-run lotteries include Numbers games, Miniloto and Loto 6, where ticket buyers choose the numbers they hope will win. There is no limit to the number of tickets sold in these lotteries. Meanwhile, the number of Jumbo lotteries has grown from four to five times a year.

Takara-kuji is also promoted on television and on promotional vans traversing Osaka and Tokyo.

While no numbers are available to divide lottery players on an income basis, a survey by the Japan Lottery Association suggests that prizes from the Jumbo draws are a greater lure than in the past.

The number of people who bought lottery tickets rose 6.4 percent from the previous year to 513.9 million yen, according to the August survey. But as corporate bankruptcies continue to grow at a feverish pitch and unemployment reaches record levels, 60.5 percent said they were playing for the prize money.

That was up from the 29.2 percent who played for the prize money in 1976, when the top reason was “pleasure.” In the previous survey, in 1998, 55.5 percent said they were playing for the money.

“It’s a healthy pastime, and I’m not saying that crime rates are going to go up because of lotteries,” Tanioka says. But since increasing the number of sales terminals at this point is likely to draw money only from the poor, revenues should be used to boost social welfare programs, he added.

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