Everything you want to know about Japan’s fascinating pachinko culture

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If there’s one thing you’ll notice the moment you set foot on Japanese soil is the impressive number of pachinko parlors that are scattered around every city and town in Japan. These colorful and lively gambling halls have become synonymous with easy entertainment for the average Japanese and they’re part of the local culture. 

It can be quite difficult for an outsider to understand why the Japanese are so fond of pachinko and why they’re not more into western style gambling, but one has to keep in mind that the Japanese culture is quite different from western world culture, and so the gambling environment in Japan is also very different from what you see in other countries across the world. 

The Japanese government is very strict when it comes to regulating gambling activities. Most forms of gambling are prohibited in the country, and there are no online or offline casinos on Japanese territory. But there are lots of colorful and lively pachinko parlors to compensate for the lack of other gambling options. 

So, if you want to get acquainted with the Japanese pachinko phenomenon and gain some insights into the local gambling market, let’s start our journey into the fascinating world of pachinko. 

What is pachinko?

First and foremost, we have to start by explaining what pachinko is all about. For the untrained eye, a pachinko machine looks just like a vertical pinball machine, and there are similarities between the two, but they’re not one and the same thing.

Pachinko is a mechanical gambling device consisting of a vertical playfield where you have to launch a ball through a field of obstacles, with pins, levers, traps and other things it can hit along the way, and depending on its trajectory you can win different prizes. The purpose of the game is to collect as many balls as possible that you can exchange for prizes. 

People usually describe pachinko machines as a hybrid between old-school pinball machines and modern day slots, and they’re not wrong. It’s the combination of different elements from both games and the twist given by the Japanese that makes pachinko so interesting and fun to play. 

A short history lesson for context 

In order to understand how pachinko came to be such a popular form of entertainment in Japan and how it turned into a billion-dollar industry, you have to get to know the history of pachinko. Don’t worry; this history lesson will be anything but boring. 

Pachinko started as a game for children called the Corinthian Bagatelle, invented in the ‘20s in Chicago. The Japanese imported it in 1924 and it became popular in candy stores where kids would play it to win sweets. They nicknamed the game pachi-pachi from the sound it made when being played. 

Then in 1930, the first pachinko parlor opened in Nagoya and their popularity grew steadily over the next few years, experiencing a boom in 1936, with hundreds of pachinko parlors being established in cities and towns around the country. Unfortunately, the beginning of the Second World War forced all pachinko parlors to close. However, when they reopened after the end of the war, the pachinko industry grew even faster, attracting even more players than before. 

Over the years, pachinko parlors evolved and changed, and even though they’re less numerous than in the post-war era, they remain one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Japan, generating high revenues year after year. 

Now, one might wonder how pachinko parlors were allowed to exist and develop in a country where gambling and casino games are almost non-existent. That’s because even though pachinko games stem from an old form of gambling, they’re not technically considered gambling. Pachinko is classified as a game where you win prizes, not a gambling activity, thus it circumvents Japan’s laws under which gambling for cash is illegal. 

Getting in the game

As a tourist, it can be quite intimidating to get into a pachinko parlor without someone to guide you around. The halls are usually jam-packed with locals playing their favorite pachinko games, they’re loud and smoky, and there are no written instructions to help you figure out what you have to do. However, getting in the game is anything but difficult. All you have to do is follow a few simple steps and sooner than you know, you’ll be playing pachinko like a pro. Here’s what you have to do. 

  • Choose a pachinko machine – first you have to know that not all pachinko machines are created equal. You can choose between Hanemono (cheap and easy to play, but with smaller prizes), Deji-Pachi (a more modern twist with computerized wins) or Kenrimono (for die-hard pachinko fans, requiring a bit more knowledge and skills). 
  • Insert the money – once you’ve chosen the pachinko machine, you can insert the money into the slot which is usually placed on the left or right side of the machine. We recommend starting with smaller sums until you get the hang of the game. There will be a counter on the bottom part of the machine, showing you how much money you’ve inserted and used, to help you keep track of your budget. 
  • Launch the pachinko balls – the pachinko balls won’t be dispensed automatically after you’ve inserted the money. You’ll have to press a button that is usually located near the counter to launch the balls into the game. When you do that, the number on the counter will decrease.  
  • Start playing – after you’ve launched the balls, you can finally start your pachinko session. You’ll have a dial at the bottom of the machine that will help you control the balls. The goal is to make the ball fall into the pocket at the bottom of the screen, so you can win prizes. 

Now that you know what playing pachinko implies, next time you come across a pachinko parlor, you can give it a shot and have a bit of fun.