The colourful, confusing world of pachinko

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While gambling is currently illegal in Japan, there are certain exceptions. Casinos look set to become legal, as the legislation necessary is currently progressing through the Japanese parliament (the Diet). However, one of the biggest industries in Japan is pachinko. It’s gambling by any other name, but it has a huge presence across the country. Lucky Nugget’s news team have taken a peek inside the smoke-filled, neon-lit pachinko parlours to see how the games compare to more traditional video slots.

Playing pachinko games

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Pachinko is an entirely random game, based on luck rather than skill. However, it is exempt from the gambling laws because, technically, you do not win money from playing it.

Players rent a number of small steel balls from the parlour itself, which they then use to play the game. The machines somewhat resemble vertical pinball machines, but there’s no flippers or helpful mechanisms to use. Instead, the balls bounce between a number of brass pins, either falling into a winning basket or the empty hole at the bottom. The aim is to land as many balls in the baskets as possible, which triggers a payout of more balls.

More modern machines may also feature a three-reel slot in the centre, where matching three symbols releases a big prize. Each ball that falls through the centre gate at the bottom will trigger a spin of the reels – meaning that it can sometimes be beneficial to lose balls.

Just as video slots often have a huge variety of themes, pachinko machines are regularly released with new aesthetics or graphics. Successful cartoon series or video games often spawn pachinko machines to capitalize on their popularity. Some examples include influential mecha series Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, the cult show Neon Genesis Evangelion, as well as Lupin the Third (made famous in the west by Hayao Miyazaki’s film The Castle of Cagliostro).

Gambling for prizes

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When you win a payout in pachinko, your reward is more balls. They are simultaneously the stake, the method of betting, and the jackpot. The bigger your win, the more balls you’ll receive. While you can funnel these balls straight back into playing more pachinko, you can also call over an attendant to help you cash them in. The staff member will take your balls to an automatic counter, and offer various prizes in exchange for your winnings.

So far, so innocent – but parlours will invariably offer a “special prize”, often a small slip of laminated gold or silver that represents a certain denomination of prize. Players can exchange their balls for these tokens, and then take them to a separate place to exchange them for cash. This second establishment is also typically also owned by the parlour, and will buy the tokens for the corresponding amount of money. (If you ever played Pokemon as a kid, you’ll recognise this: the gaming corner and prize exchange were always separate buildings next to each other.)

You can win other prizes, like toys or shopping vouchers, but these are usually only taken by players who have leftover winnings that can’t afford another special prize.

Pachinko bypasses the current gambling laws in Japan because of its two-establishment set-up. Specifically, the law remains intact precisely because the cash prize isn’t exchanged on the same premises as where it was won.

Casinos in Japan will most likely be able to offer games and prize exchange on the same site, so it’ll be interesting to see if the legislation that legalises integrated resorts has any impact on pachinko. It probably won’t though, as the current system has been in place for decades and seems to work well.

If you ever find yourself in Japan, pachinko parlours are well worth a visit if only for the cultural experience. Until the first integrated resorts open, the parlours remain the only legal way to gamble in Japan outside of sports betting. It’s no surprise that these rooms are always busy, then – after all, gamers have got to game!