What do loud noises, small shiny balls, and bright lights have in common? Pachinko parlors. Pachinko, which can be described as a cross between pinball and slot machines, is a favorite pastime in Japan, despite gambling being illegal (because it’s not technically gambling). The players, who often spend hours sitting in front of these noisy, bright machines, win shiny steel balls, not money, so it’s not gambling, right? Right. Enter loophole: They can take their baskets of balls to a neighboring, but “separate,” establishment to exchange the balls for cash prizes. How convenient!
Pachinko parlors are often huge, gaudy buildings, common even to countryside towns. If you pass one early in the morning, there will often be a line of people rounding the corner, waiting for the doors to open. Many people, especially men, love pachinko. Some members of the government, however, are starting to believe that their citizens love it a little too much.
This past summer the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare conducted research on the number of citizens addicted to gambling, including boat and horse racing, pachinko, slots and even mahjong. The study found that over 5.36 million people are addicted to gambling (4.3 million men, and just under 1 million women)—that’s almost five percent of the population (and almost nine percent of all men). Further, they discovered that within this group, eighty percent of them are addicted to pachinko and slots, specifically.
▼Baskets and baskets of pachinko balls in exchange for your money.
Now, some people may find it hard to believe that you could get addicted to what is essentially pinball without the levers, but it’s a real problem. It was such a problem in Korea that the government effectively banned it, leading many addicts to travel to Japan to get their fix. In Fukushima prefecture, locals claim the nuclear disaster refugee community is found more in pachinko parlors than looking for sustainable work. People get so addicted that they throw away all of their money at the pachinko establishments, which sometimes leads to financial problems and broken families.
In the wake of the announcement of Abe’s plan to lift the gambling ban to allow the opening of casinos in Japan, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is pushing for gambling addiction counter-measures, including guidelines for pachinko parlor workers to recognize and report addicted customers, starting a hotline for addicts and their families to seek help and possibly even redesigning machines to curb addictive behavior.
▼ “I want to play pachinko… I love pachinko!”
Dr. Masayuki Oishi, owner of a gambling rehabilitation center in Yokohama, says that efforts should be focused on the most vulnerable people — the unemployed, single parents and people with financial troubles — to warn them of the “evils of gambling.”
Abe’s government is in a tricky spot. Is the call to save Japan’s gambling addicts stronger than the potential monetary boost from legalizing gambling (which could, in turn, potentially create more addicts nationwide)? With recent economic figures showing recession, resignations of cabinet members and Abe calling a snap election, who knows what the future will hold for the policies dealing with Japan’s gambling addicts.