New Spin On Old Pastime: Japan's Pachinko Parlors Going Upscale
Feb. 08, 1996
TOKYO (AP) _ Part-time teacher Etsuko Kimoto wouldn't be caught dead in a traditional pachinko hall, where gangsters, gamblers and idle old men sit transfixed by clattering silver marbles under a choking haze of cigarette smoke.
Instead, Mrs. Kimoto, 59, heads to the glittery new Maruhan Pachinko Tower, one of a new breed of pachinko parlors designed to draw women and younger people to the game, a vertical form of a 1920s' forerunner to pinball.
Thanks in part to the new trend, pachinko is booming.
Pachinko parlors have long been the smoky redoubt of shady characters, bored office workers and wizened retirees.
But pachinko entrepreneurs in recent years have aimed for new markets: women and younger folks eager for a gambling thrill but repulsed by the grime, smoke and unsavory atmosphere of traditional parlors.
Mrs. Kimoto dresses nattily for her pachinko outings _ which sometimes consume a mind-rattling eight hours a day _ to the no-smoking section of Maruhan.
``Other pachinko halls lack elegance. They have a more low-class atmosphere,'' she said before strolling on a marble tile floor past a stack of TVs playing music videos.
Maruhan, a mammoth gambling house of six floors that opened last year in the trendy Shibuya district of Tokyo, typifies pachinko's push toward respectability.
Instead of the cheap trinkets handed out as winnings and exchanged for a wad of bills at small, unmarked outside windows, Maruhan features squeaky-clean display windows that entice players with Gucci handbags and Tiffany necklaces.
And instead of the down-on-your-luck feel of typical parlors, where glaring fluorescent lights wash out even the healthiest complexion, the lights are softer. Young couples can share their gambling passion side by side in comfortable loveseats.
The trend apparently is paying off. The government reported last month that pachinko parlors collected $305 billion in revenues in 1994, nearly double the figure for the previous five years.
The game accounted for a whopping 25 percent of revenues in the service sector.
Frills aside, the game _ and the gambling _ are basically the same at all parlors. Players shoot metal marbles onto a vertical board, hoping they drop into special slots and bring on a torrent of silver balls that can be fed back into the machine or cashed in.
Success, players say, depends on skill, the positioning of the pins, and the setting of the computerized machines. On a good day, customers can walk away with thousands of dollars in winnings. On a bad day, they go home with empty pockets.
Gambling is illegal in Japan, but as long as cash is not dispensed inside the parlors, officials turn a blind eye. Gangsters, or ``yakuza,'' are major movers in the business, as are ethnic Koreans loyal to the communist North. Pachinko earnings sent to North Korea provide a rare source of foreign cash.
The game is wildly popular. More than 30 million Japanese play, and the country's 18,000 parlors _ hard to miss with garish neon storefronts and the din of machine bells and marbles _ are everywhere, from downtown Tokyo to country towns.
Pachinko fans are not swayed by tough times. Japan's five-year recession has not blunted the game's growth _ in fact, the sluggish economy has made winning some extra cash more compelling for some.
The lure of the game was well in evidence one midweek morning at Maruhan. While many Japanese hurried to work at 9 a.m., about 150 people sat on line in a damp stairwell, reading comic books or newspapers and waiting for the parlor to open. Another 50 people waited outside.
Michiyasu Ito, 40, employed only sporadically by a moving company, said he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and makes the one-hour commute from his home outside Tokyo to be sure he gets the machine he bets will be a moneymaker that day.
``With this, I'm winning,'' he said, waving a computer printout Maruhan provides showing each machine's payout record for the previous three days.
Pachinko parlors can also be a place for a date _ though not always a very romantic one. In Maruhan's couples' section one afternoon, Hideaki Inoue, 22, said he made a deal with his girlfriend, Hiromi Akiyama, 21 _ first pachinko, then dinner out.
``At the other places there's no place for her,'' he said, looking satisfied next his winnings: seven trays of gleaming marbles. ``So it's easier for me to take her here.''
Ms. Akiyama, however, was less than thrilled after a grueling seven hours of watching Inoue play pachinko. Bored, she toyed with the marbles.
``I don't like it at all,'' she sighed.