What do you get when you swing an ice cream bucket full of bearing balls at a slot machine? Apparently a multi-billion dollar industry if you happen to do it in Japan and call it pachinko.
The numbers speak for themselves. What started as a children’s toy in the 1920’s is today an industry generating hundreds of billions of dollars in annual revenues. That is quite astounding for an activity, which never makes gambling news headlines outside Japan.
What is pachinko? It is a contraption resembling a vertical pinball machine, with hundreds of little steel balls streaming through it, which players attempt to guide through a multitude of pins and into various holes, by regulating their launch speed. Once the required number of balls is entrapped, a slot reel will spin giving players the chance to win more balls.
While it sounds like some sort of a gambling device, such a thing would be strictly illegal under Japanese gambling laws. Hence there are no cash prizes to be had in pachinko. Instead, the balls can be traded in for gold shavings or other prizes, which can then be taken next door to “another” company and sold for cash.
This fast paced, noisy, flashy form of amusement (no, not gambling) is an extremely popular pastime in the Land of the Rising Sun, with thousands of parlors just about everywhere. However, unlike so many Japanese fads from karate to sushi, from manga comics to Hello Kitty, pachinko never gained much of a following outside the island nation. (Though Facebook actually features a social gaming version of it, in case you would like to try it online.)
Occasionally, however, the western media shows interest in the pachinko phenomenon. A recent feature on PRI radio highlighted the significance of the game. “The pachinko industry constitutes Japan’s largest leisure activity. The sector employs over 300,000 people and brings in about $225 billion a year. That’s more than two times the revenue from all legal US gambling operations — in other words, about the GDP of a country like Israel,” claimed the PRI report.
But who really benefits from these billions?
Check back tomorrow for Part II.