The Industry with Balls of Steel

5 March 2009
I feel as though I’m in Las Vegas, although this is Tokyo -- not Vegas. Pachinko, a vertical, pinball-like game, brings in a staggering amount of cash compared to its equally flashy cousin in Sin City, the slot machine.

The first thing that hits me when I walk into a pachinko parlor is the deafening sound the small metal balls make as they hit the payout trays at the bottom of each machine.

The layout, machines, bright lights and noise are all much-of-a-muchness as I enter (then get kicked out of) a dozen or so parlors for taking photographs.

I’m just one of the 12 million people passing through the doors of 15,000 parlors scattered around Japan.

Pachinko originated in Nagoya, in 1945, where military aircraft manufacturing firms were thinking of ways to use up ball bearings left over from World War II.

It was marketed as a form of entertainment for the Allied Forces. It took off when highly sought after commodities like tobacco and chocolate began to be used as prizes.

Players pay money and rent ball bearings, which they then propel into a maze by flippers.

Arrays of small nails guide the path of the balls.

When a ball enters a scoring slot, three dials begin rotating, and if all three symbols/numbers line up, the winner takes the jackpot. Otherwise, the balls fall into the gutter at the bottom of the machine.

When a jackpot is hit, pachinko balls collect in a little, plastic tray placed at the base of the machine. The tray is then sent through a ball-counting machine, and a customer can choose a prize according to the number of balls won.

More than 95 percent of players don’t bother with these little prizes and just wait until they have enough token prizes to exchange for hard cash at an independent hole-in-the-wall near the premises.

The prizes purchased at the counter are then sold to a prize wholesaler, who, in turn, sells the prizes back to the parlor owners.

The National Police Agency regulates the price of the ball bearings, the shooting speed and the probability of repeated jackpots.

There are no official statistics on the amount of money pachinko brings in, but an estimate by the Entertainment Business Institute for 2007 had that the industry was worth 2.8 trillion Japanese yen -- or about $28.6 billion -- in revenue (win). Handle was about 27 trillion yen. Value of handle refers to the total sum of pachinko balls bet to play.

Pachinko is also a murky industry in the eyes of the law, but this could change soon.

Gambling is currently outlawed here, but according to official legal interpretation pachinko is "not gambling," though this interpretation has not been challenged yet. It is the cash exchange of pachinko wins that is illegal, which is why players exchange prizes at independent booths off the premises.

Political parties are currently debating the possible legal structure for the introduction of casinos in Japan, and while it will not be within the next year or so, it has brought the issue of gambling to the surface.

"It will force the police authority to define more clearly what is pachinko," said Toru Mihara, a visiting professor at the Osaka University of Commerce and expert on Japanese gaming law. "We need to start to discuss. We are obliged to corner the police authority to define themselves, which means the police authority will go to the industry and control them more severely. That will lead to a lot of transparency in the industry."

And in terms of the casinos being a threat, both the industry and analysts feel that pachinko need not worry in the short term as the market and clientele are sufficiently different.

Although the pachinko industry wouldn't mind a slice of this pie, too.

Professor Mihara said that "some pachinko machine manufacturers are interested because they have a stake in the outside world, but they are not speaking loudly because it is forbidden, because it is illegal in Japan.

"It is difficult to get companies to say, 'Hey, I want to be involved in casinos,' " he continued. "It is difficult under the current social circumstances for big companies to raise their hands."

There is also speculation and disagreement as to whether pachinko can successfully jump onto the Internet bandwagon.

Chief researcher at the Entertainment Business Institute, Takashi Kiso, said the market is very limited in Japan but added, "To be popular for online pachinko in Japan, more game element and tie-up content with other media (TV shows, animations, video games, etc.) will be needed. Those factors make the pachinko to be popular in Japan. However, the major manufactures who are able to develop such pachinko machines never get into the online market because it is illegal in Japan."

Western analysts are far more cautious of virtual pachinko.

Ed Barton, analyst at Screen Digest in London, said he has not heard of much interest from Western operators in the format.

"I would argue that if pachinko is online, it’s not pachinko -- defining characteristics of the game include the visceral, physical and random nature of the metal balls working their way through the machine.

"Of course, pachinko-inspired online games could and probably have been offered online in the West -- after all, slot-machine online games do very well," he added. "I cannot think of anything I have heard indicating that pachinko will take off online in Western markets. Given the widespread cultural lack of familiarity with the concept outside Japan I would be surprised if it ever does."

But for now the balls will continue to clang and the tills continue to ring just as loudly as they have been in a mind-bogglingly lucrative industry.

Ms. Soteriou is a research psychologist, doctoral candidate and freelance journalist based in London.