You’ll have heard this story before, in one form or another. “Mr. B,” 66, is a pachinko addict. Hard core.
Until a certain fateful day 10 years ago there were no premonitory signs, unless straight-arrow conventionality to the point of dullness is one. Company man, family man, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink — didn’t play pachinko either, until that fateful day when, stressed at work, on an impulse, he dropped into a parlor on the way home, figuring, “What the hell, I’ll lose ¥2,000.” He lost ¥100,000. How? He hardly knew; it just happened. Dazed, he left at last, a changed man.
His story is part of Shukan Asahi magazine’s feature on gambling addiction. Technically, pachinko is not gambling. Gambling, with some exceptions, is illegal in Japan. Pachinko, classified as entertainment, skirts the ban. Clinicians who deal with this sort of thing, however, say pachinko addiction is indistinguishable from gambling addiction, whatever the legal shadings.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and like-minded legislators want to legalize gambling. It’s part of their economic growth strategy. Casinos would bring in big money. Japan’s mired economy could use some. Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore are the most glittering showcases of what mega-casinos can do. Why shouldn’t they do it for Japan?
The growing opposition to casinos has a ready answer: addiction. Even banned, gambling has hooked 5.36 million Japanese addicts, according to health ministry figures released in August. That’s 4.8 percent of the adult population. Worldwide, gambling addiction afflicts roughly 1 percent of the adult population.
Why should gambling fever rage so much more fiercely here than elsewhere? Is it something in Japanese society? In Japanese culture? Without addressing this question, Shukan Asahi raises another: If casino-less Japan spawns so many gambling addicts, how will it be once casinos are established? Will Mr. B become a typical, instead of a fringe, figure?
It would take a very strong character indeed, or a very rich one, to lose ¥100,000 in an evening and let it go at that. Mr. B was back the next evening, and the one after that, and the rest of the story, though horrifying, is fairly predictable. Sometimes he won, more often he lost. He borrowed on his credit cards, borrowed on his mortgage. Desperation swelled to madness. He’d resolve to quit, but passing a pachinko parlor he’d get dizzy, as helpless to resist its pull as a drug addict is to resist a fix. It is terrifying to think how low an ordinary, stable person can sink. By the time his wife learned the truth, he was ¥15 million in debt.
He finally ended up at Gamblers’ Anonymous Japan. There, “I understood that I was sick,” he says. He met people even worse off than himself, including an executive in his 70s who drove his company to bankruptcy by betting its profits at the race track.
Mr. B hasn’t played pachinko in two years, but he knows he’s not cured and probably never will be. The urge will always be there, on watch for a momentary weakness.
When measured against the social costs of gambling addiction — debt, lost jobs, wrecked marriages, damaged health, increased welfare costs — would casinos be a benefit or a blight? Shukan Asahi does not answer the question, only maintaining that the issues have not been adequately discussed.
Discussion would naturally focus on three words: pleasure, happiness and addiction. Pleasure is fleeting happiness, happiness is lasting pleasure, and addiction is anything, however good or pleasant in itself, taken to unmanageable extremes. Anything pleasant can, potentially, be taken to extremes. Everything pleasant is, by some people. Is Mr. B an argument for banning pachinko? Is an alcoholic an argument for banning alcohol? Is the recent murder of two sex workers in Hong Kong an argument for banning sex work?
The Hong Kong affair has had extensive coverage, the banker-suspect symbolizing the brutal excesses of extreme wealth, the victims the brutal deprivations of extreme poverty. It’s not that simple, of course. If it were, there would be little prostitution in Japan, where poverty is rarely so dire. The weekly Spa!, however, finds quite a lot of it, and the title it gives its article on the subject tells a good part of the story: “Amateur prostitution clubs.”
“Networks” in this case might be a better rendering of the Japanese-English word “circle.” Either way, the point is the casualness with which some women, by no means poor, enter into transactions that other times and places have viewed as degrading and exploitative.
Possibly with the Hong Kong case in mind, Spa! warns that the women are “playing with fire,” but its report conveys little sense of danger, or of the exuberant high and sordid low living that came together so tragically in a Hong Kong red light district that prides itself on providing pleasure to pleasure-addicts such as the suspect is portrayed as being.
Strictly business here, the magazine’s writer finds, somewhat to his bemusement. He visits “Yumi,” 33, at her home in a suburb outside Tokyo, having “met” her at an online encounter site where she advertises her services. There are children’s photographs on the wall, children’s toys on the floor. The woman herself looks her age, neither attractive nor unattractive.
“If we don’t click I’ll introduce you to a friend,” she says. No hard feelings.
No feelings, period. That’s the way her “circle” works. Most of the members are co-workers at a part-time job, passing clients around among themselves. When one of them asked her if she was interested, she thought, “Why not? Sexless marriage — why not play around a bit?” She’s not hard up for money, just for distraction.
“We’ve all got kids and part-time jobs, there are no hotels in the neighborhood, so it’s either here in the house or in the toilet in the park. Well, that’s enough talk,” she says. Spa!’s journalist looks around him at the kids’ laughing faces on the wall, wondering what to make of it all.
Elsewhere the journalist encounters more cheerful circles, including one that rendezvous at a members-only bar in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu, and concludes, “However stagnant the economy, the demand for nighttime companionship is eternal.”
Ditto for pachinko, gambling, booze or any amusement you can think of that temporarily lifts us out of the hole we dug for ourselves during the momentary absence of mind that seems to come over everyone at some point between youth and adulthood — if not for which, who would willingly enter adulthood and keep society going?
Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.
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