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Here is a nation-wide phenomenon that is as annoying as it is widespread. Meet Pachinko, called a mix between a slot machine and a vertical pinball game. The idea is to toss hundreds of small steel balls into the game and, while most will fall completely through the machine, some will fall into holes that activate a slot machine, the hope being that three of the same pictures will appear at random. The player, to this I can attest, tends to seem like an emotionless machine himself, only controlling the speed with which the hundreds of tiny ball bearings are entered into the game. I know, exciting.

Still, there appears to be nothing stopping their popularity, particularly among older Japanese. The Pachinko industry employs nearly a third of a million people, is responsible for about 40 percent of Japan’s leisure industry, including bars and restaurants, and has an estimated 30 million regular players spending more than 30 trillion yen ($254.2 billion USD) a year, according to Japan Zone, an online travel guide. Those pachinko profits top the entire service industry in Japan, according to National Geographic. Like most effective forms of gambling, it is fairly startling how quickly one can lose his money, as 500 or 1,000 yen will likely yield nothing more than a few minutes of disappointment.

Bright enough to be street corner lighthouses, the Pachinko Parlors invariably emit a seedy, but somehow alluring glow from thousands of tiny light bulbs, which encircle the windows and doors. There is always at least one near every train station, and along the countryside, they are known for garishly destroying whatever beauty small Japanese towns might still exude. You step through sliding electric glass doors and, if the overpowering cigarette smoke doesn’t knock you over, you will find the blinding white light you found outside is suddenly accompanied by at least seven or eight of the most annoying noises known to man.

Upon entry, first, one uses cash or a prepaid card to buy a tray of these small steel ball bearings. It works out to be about 4 yen per ball, though 100 yen is usually the minimum purchase. Still, a serious pachinko player wouldn’t likely spend less than a few thousand yen, according to Japan Zone, an online travel guide.

Once entered by the player, the balls fall through a maze of nail-like pins. Essentially, the goal is to get your balls returned to you, but with a lot of new friends. Each ball has a cash value of about 2.5 yen each, according to Japan Zone. The newer machines feature a digital screen with popular cartoon characters and all the bright flashing lights and incessant noise that you’d expect from a building of bright flashing lights and incessant noise. The government sets win-ratios, but there are always allegations of parlors increasing winner totals on busy days to promote higher patronage.

Japan is full of stories of little old ladies who squeeze out a living by plunking thousands of yen into these machines and waiting for the mathematically inevitable victory, so-called professional pachinko players. Prizes actually include cookies and cigarettes from the parlor’s gift shop, but they are often – quietly – exchanged for money through a small window just outside the parlor in back alleys, according to the Japan Living and Travel Guide. Now, I haven’t seen any signs of the yakuza, Japanese organized crime syndicates, which are reputed to be active in the pachinko industry, but I have seen the traces of these windows and secretive exchanges of cash.

The flagrantly illegal companies that offer money in exchange for the legal winnings of players then sell the goods and tickets back to the parlor, after taking their own profit. So, it is a generally understood, technically illegal component of Japan. I suppose pachinko, a game that began to take hold of Japan in the 1950s, according to National Geographic, is too popular for much of a crackdown to come.

Concerned about attracting another generation of pachinko addicts, Sankyo, a leading machine maker has recently employed Nicholas Cage to appear in television commercials as an active pachinko-player, according to Japan Zone, an online travel guide. So it is nice to see that Cage is doing his part to create another age of gamblers and addicts among the Japanese people.

In 2001, a UK company bought shares of Tokyo Plaza, which runs about 20 parlors in Japan, according to Japan Zone, and made plans to bring pachinko to England, which I think is for the best. Finally, the best of Japan will find its way to the Western world.

Jaa ne,

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