Mr. Naito Loves Pachinko
Mr. Naito loves pachinko, this point is certain. The first time we spoke about the subject, his low voice resonated with an excited buzz that only true passion and Marlboro Reds can create. It was as if he were describing his children.
The Best Game
"For me," he begins in broken English, "Pachinko is best game…the whole world." It appears his fellow countrymen agree. In the modern Japanese landscape, pachinko is ubiquitous. From the hidden nooks and crannies of Tokyo and Osaka, to lonely country roads, you can't get very far in Japan without coming across the brightly lit gambling parlors that are one of the country's most mysterious icons.
When I arrived in Japan over two years ago, the pachinko parlors surrounding Narita airport were the first things I noticed. My company's liaison, who was taking me to my new home, responded to my questions unenthusiastically.
"Oh it's pachinko. It's like gambling, but since gambling for money is illegal, they try to win small metal balls."
"And what next?" I asked. "Do you get money for the balls?"
"I think so. I'm not really sure, if that's allowed. I heard they trade them for cigarettes. I'm not really sure. I've never tried it."
Foreigners Rarely Pachinko Fans
This seems to be the trend among foreigners. Many travelers and expats who adopt Japan as home cultivate a pet interest in the unique culture after arrival. Language, food, animation and comics, tea ceremony and video games all have their appeal to the foreign crowd, but rarely do you meet a foreigner who is a pachinko fan. It seems to be a segment of society best left unexplored.
A Wall of Sound
I'm no exception. Pachinko has always been an eyesore in my book, places that feed on addiction and produce nothing but noise and eye pollution. When my mother visited soon after my arrival, we decided to wander into a pachinko parlor in Tokyo to see what it was all about. The first thing that hits you is a wall of sound. Row after row of machines belt out a series of blips, beeps and bells on par with the busiest Vegas casinos. Sitting at the machines are mostly middle aged men, chain smoking as they plug away at the machines, hour after hour. We could only stand the noise and smoky haze for a minute before retreating back to the street.
I've poked my head in a couple more pachinko places since then in an attempt to understand this craze that's gripped Japan. The machines are set up like vertical pinballs, where small round balls are shot up and then filter down through a grid of nails. The player can move a dial to control the trajectory of the balls. They then filter down into designated slots that award payouts in the form of more balls. There are newer machines that are far more complicated, combining slot machine elements or higher stakes for the true pachinko aficionados, nicknamed "pachi-puro". Many players find a machine's sweet spot adjustment and simply press a button in between cigarette drags. The whole thing seems like a huge bore. Could this non-gambler be missing something? I'd have to try it for myself.
Pachinko Professional – Pachi-Puro
Mr. Naito teaches fourth grade at one of the schools where I teach English. He's been extremely kind to me from the start and I consider him a good friend and exceptional teacher. I always look forward to our conversations.
"Naito-sensei, I'm going to try pachinko." He smirks and cocks his head in doubt in true Japanese form. "Do you have any tips for me?"
"Oh…I'm pachinko professional. Please take care."
I explain that I simply want the experience. I'm tired of blindly criticizing something I don't understand and haven't tried. He flips open his cell phone and starts scrolling through the days on his calendar. At the bottom are numbers.
"In February I'm making 100,000 yen. January too, 100,000 yen." As he flips through the dates, I can see his luck varies significantly day to day. It also appears that he doesn't ever seem to go a day without trying his luck. Thursday, up 40,000; Friday, down 25,000; Saturday up 60,000; Sunday up 150,000.
"That's 1,200 dollars. How long did you play that day?" I ask.
"Too long. My daughter hates. In one hour I can spending 40,000-60,000. You shouldn't do. Daniel-sensei should only try, only enjoy. My cousin works for pachinko parlor so…I learn secrets. I'm professional, I'm pachi-puro."
Pachi-puros like Mr. Naito can rake in an extra $1,000 to $2,000 in gambling earnings a month, or lose it. He goes on to explain that pachinko is a big social problem he's admittedly part of. Guys can blow a day's earnings in an hour, playing out of desperation often ends badly. Thinking back, I can recall that many of my Japanese friends have a pachinko story.
My girlfriend's previous relationship ended because of his addiction. Their plans always fell by the wayside if a machine was hitting. Another buddy of mine in his early twenties hardly visits home anymore because his parents have decided to spend their retirement in the parlors putting their life savings on the line. Most of the stories come from disgruntled wives and girlfriends, but even women are starting to fill the stools as the huge pachinko syndicates more aggressively court their patronage. Game centers for kids even have pachinko so they can be ready for the big leagues when they turn 18.
After three weeks of hesitation, I finally settle on a day rainy enough to warrant sitting indoors wasting my time, money and lungs. I can now cross the pachinko experience off the checklist.
The Game Begins Before You Sit Down
With pachinko, the game of chance begins before you sit down. You must get a certain number of balls into the designated starting slot before other higher paying slots open up. When this mystery number is reached, the machine starts to "hit". Depending on how much the machine has been played that day, you might need one or one hundred balls in that starting slot before your odds improve and the real fun starts. Pachi-puros know which machines are going to hit and line up outside parlors each morning to make sure they can pick their winners.
I sit down to a machine that hasn't hit today according to the digital stats. I start with 500 yen knowing full well this will give me a minute's play tops. At four yen a ball, soon 125 balls are flying through the machine. There's a staff member looking over my shoulder telling me which part of the grid to aim for. I try to keep the dial steady, but there's too much going on. In the middle of the game is a digital screen where huge-breasted cartoon girls keep track of my score and cheer me on.
Everyone's Making Money But Me
The guy at the machine behind me switches out his full bucket of balls for an empty. Four full buckets surround his stool. He probably started with 10,000 yen compared to my measly 500 yen coin. After his session is finished, he can trade in his earning for cigarettes, snacks, even big prizes like appliances. But he'll probably opt for the other prizes offered like plastic gold bricks or various dummy chips that can be traded off-site for cash. These speakeasy style shops provide a convenient way around the gambling illegality problem. Despite being technically illegal in their own right, they are protected by the police, the yakuza organized crime network, even by top bureaucrats. These back-alley operations only payout 2.5 yen a ball, then sell the dummy chips back to the parlors, skimming some of the top, of course. Everyone's making money but me.
Here To Stay
The balls stop. The cartoon boobs stop bouncing. It's over and I can now speak from experience when I say that I don't really care for pachinko. If you're the type of gambler who likes betting a buck on a hand of blackjack, or $20.00 buy-in poker nights, pachinko might not be for you. As recreation, you need some big bucks up front, as a money-maker, it requires the selfish dedication typical of serious gamblers anywhere. When you throw into the mix the industry's ties to crooked cops and bureaucrats, organized crime, some even say the North Koreans, pachinko's bright lights start to dim. But its hold on Japan is firm, with those in power protecting it and parking lots full, pachinko is definitely here to stay. The only question remaining is whether it hops the sea from these unique neon islands. Somehow, I doubt it.