What comes to mind when you think of Japanese gambling? If you said pachinko, you’re right on the money! Pachinko is one of the most popular forms of gambling in Japan. 

Pachinko machines were first introduced to Japan in the early 1920s, and today there are over 9000 pachinko parlors across the country. It is estimated that about 7 million Japanese were regular pachinko players in 2020 (more than 5% of the population!). 

But what kind of game is it? Is it even legal? And why is it so popular? In this article, we will answer all your questions about pachinko in Japan.

What is Pachinko?

Pachinko is a popular form of entertainment in Japan. This is a game between western pinball and slot machines that involves dropping small balls into a machine and watching as they bounce and slide down various pathways. These machines are also similar to slot machines that you can find in Las Vegas, but they use small balls made of steel instead of coins. 

Pachinko parlors have a very distinct appearance that makes them easy to spot, even if you have never seen one before. They are typically brightly lit and very noisy, with a constantly blaring sound of music and balls bouncing around inside of machines. It is a bit like a hybrid between an arcade game center and a casino. The interior is usually full of rows upon rows of pachinko machines, each machine with an enthusiastic player sitting in front of it.

Pachinko machine was invented before world war II but this is after the war it became really people to then become an iconic part of Japanese culture, and many players see pachinko as a way to escape from the stress of everyday life. 

How Do Pachinko Machines Work?

To sum up the basic principles of the game: 

  • Pachinko is played on a pinball-like vertical board. 
  • The objective of the game is to shoot small metal balls into the board, and then have them bounce off of pins and other obstacles to lend in certain pockets. 
  • If the ball falls into the winning pockets, the player will receive more balls, which can be exchanged for prizes

1 – Mechanical Machines

The first pachinko machines were all mechanical. Players used to push down a spring-loaded lever to repeatedly launch the balls inside the machine which would then bounce around various pins and levers to end either in small pockets, or in a hole at the bottom. At that time, the amount of strength you put on the lever had an important impact on the way your balls were launched inside the machine. 

The goal of the game was the same as today: get as many balls as possible inside the winning pockets. Mechanical pachinko machines were very quiet compared to modern ones. They would only produce sounds thanks to bells, as well as metal balls bouncing on metal pins. Electricity was used to some extent, just to flash colorful lights inside the machine. 

In the 1980s, Japanese pachinko machines started to become less mechanical and more like real electronic gaming devices. Little by little, pachinko parlor started offering more modern machines with new exciting features. 

2 – Electronic Machines

Modern electronic pachinko machines often have animated displays and feature many sound effects. They are very loud, continuously displaying flashes of multicolor lights to the player. 

The spring-loaded lever of mechanical machines has been replaced by a kind of round knob located on the right side of the device. The player can now turn this knob to control the speed and strength of the metal balls when they are released into the playing area.

Machine makers also added a central button in front of the player and a digital screen over the main winning pocket (the start Chucker) to play all kinds of animated mini-games. Those mini-games are triggered when you get a ball inside the start Chucker. 

Moreover, pachinko parlors tried to diversify the business by offering new variations in the game. For example, many machines now display a row of three numbers on their central screen, just like a slot machine in casinos.

Each ball that ends up in the start Chucker triggers a spin, and the goal is to spin the numbers until they are all the same. If you hit the jackpot, the machine enters a temporary ¨payout mode¨ and a big pocket appears at the bottom. Every ball that enters this new pocket leads you to receive more balls. 

How to Play Pachinko?

Finding a pachinko is easy since they are present in most cities. Moreover, they are noisy so you might actually hear them before even seeing them! Due to the strict Japanese law, you must be at least 18 to have the right to enter a pachinko parlor. 

The stars of the pachinko are its tiny balls. Actually, the name ¨pachinko¨ is derived from the metallic ¨pachin¨ sound of the balls when they are moving inside the machines. So the first thing to do is get your pachinko balls. 

While an older pachinko parlor might require you to rent balls from the front desk, today you can just take a seat in front of the machine of your choice and insert your money inside in exchange for balls. In a typical pachinko parlor, 1 ball represents approximately 4 yen. For example, you could exchange 125 balls for 500 yen (around $4).

Once you have your bucket of pachinko balls, you can start loading the tray in front of you. The game might be slightly different depending on the type of machine you use. However, the most common goal is to aim for the start Chucker. This leads to a Jackpot, triggering a payout with many balls dropping down into the loading tray of your pachinko machine. 

There might be other smaller pockets across the board that you can aim for. However, your influence on the actual direction the balls will take is limited, so pachinko is also about how lucky you are during the game. 

The more your balls end in the right pockets, the more you win additional balls. Once you are done playing, you have to insert all your balls into a special machine to count them. You can then trade them for prizes. But if you use all your balls, the game ends here for you! 

What are Koatari and Ooatari? 

With the introduction of modern pachinko machines, the players must now face more difficult challenges, including grasping new concepts related to the odds of hitting a Jackpot.

If you take a look at the inscription above the machine, you will notice there are different numbers written for every machine such as 1/99 or 1/200. Those are the probability you will get a Jackpot each spin. Therefore, you won’t have the same chance of winning with every machine. 

Originally, there was only one big Jackpot called ¨ooatari¨ (大当たり). However, since 2007, most pachinko parlors started introducing another type of jackpot into their system called ¨koatari¨ (小当たり) or mini-Jackpot. A koatari will only last for a short time compared to Ooatari (only two rounds). This also means you have less time to fire your balls into the payout pocket.

Why is Pachinko Popular in Japan?

Pachinko is a very popular game in Japan, attracting people of all ages and backgrounds. There are many reasons why the Japanese are so drawn to pachinko, from its fast-paced gameplay and exciting atmosphere to the various prizes that can be won. Additionally, pachinko is considered by many to be a form of recreation that helps to relieve stress after a long day at work. 

Moreover, pachinko machines can be found in nearly every corner of Japan, and they are typically much cheaper to play than other gambling games. Nowadays, you can even find pachinko parlor offering 1 ball for 1 yen instead of 4. Japanese are also known to like trying their luck, which makes pachinko even more appealing to players. 

While pachinko can be exciting, it can also be addictive, and many players end up spending more money than they can afford in order to keep playing. As a result, pachinko addiction is a serious problem in Japan, and one that has caused many people to fall into debt.

Is it Legal in Japan? 

Although it may look like gambling, pachinko is technically legal in Japan while gambling is not. Pachinko parlors trade balls, which can be exchanged for prizes (coupons, valuable objects) at the end of the game.

While the pachinko balls have no monetary value, the prizes that they can be exchanged for often do. So why is pachinko legal while gambling is not? 

The answer is simple: pachinko isn’t considered gambling because there is no direct exchange of money for prizes. However, because of the loophole that allows pachinko to be played, many people do end up exchanging their pachinko winnings for cash.

As a result, the pachinko industry is sometimes accused of being fronts for illegal gambling operations as the gambling laws are very strict in Japan.

Not to mention that some managers of pachinko parlor are suspected to be part of the Yakuza: the Japanese mafia or even to support North Korea.

While the line between pachinko and gambling may be a bit blurry, the Japanese government has so far been unwilling to crack down on the popular pastime.

Conclusion

I hope this article gave you a good overview of what pachinko is, how it works and why it is popular among the Japanese people. Now, the question is: will this popularity last? 

The coronavirus pandemic that started in 2020 has hit the pachinko industry in Japan quite hard so players tend to play pachinko at online casinos from home. Parlors were asked to close by the Japanese government each time a new wave of corona came.

In addition, the recent smoking ban inside pachinko parlors had more than one smoker stop coming altogether. As a result, the number of pachinko parlors in the country is now steadily decreasing. 

Commonly Asked Questions about Pachinko Japan:

How do you play pachinko?

To play pachinko, customers begin buying a buckets full of tiny metal ball. They generally cost about 4 yen and can usually be ordered in bulk in the range of 100 to 1000. Once the ball arrives at the machine, the player will aim to get it into the hole of the machine which triggers the jackpot. If a winning combination is achieved then a huge number of balls will hit your table.

Is pachinko still popular in Japan?

In recent years the pachinko industry has earned more than $200 million. Almost 30 times the amount of money spent in casinos in Las Vegas and Macau combined. Pachinko parlors exist only in Japan and is definitely a big business as it represents almost 4% of Japan s GDP.

Is pachinko a game of luck?

It’s partially a game of skill and partially a game of chance. Some players win enough money to make a living playing pachinko but this is a minority of people among the millions of pachinko players in Japan.