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I hate pachinko

If the word ‘pachinko’ means nothing to you, I’ll explain first what this rant is all about. Pachinko is a game, like a slot-/fruit-machine, but with a lot less skill involved. In the old days, it resembled a vertical pinball, complete with flippers, but all that’s been replaced by a video screen and all the interactive elements have been removed. Your only job is to feed the beast. The game operates by firing little steel balls around and seeing if they go in little holes which kick off the video feature. If you win, you win more steel balls. Then you feed them back into the machine. Rinse and repeat. Until you’re broke.

Being the biggest industry in Japan by far, annually worth in excess of ¥30 trillion, pachinko is the muscle in Japan’s ‘leisure industry’. It also, in my opinion, embodies everything that’s wrong with Japan.

It’s billed as ‘entertainment’ and the biggest companies vie for your leisure hours with prime ads all over the place. And yet, like j-tv, it’s mindless. You could sit your dog in front of a pachinko machine and he would be as much a pachinko player as you are. There’s nowt to do, just watch the video screen and wonder why everyone else’s machine is paying out loads of little balls. Other than that, you could order a drink, I suppose. Or smoke another Lucky Strike. With all the skill having long ago been removed from the ‘playing’ of pachinko, your only job is to keep the money coming. When you can no longer do that, you’ll have to find some other ploy to avoid your family.

The atmosphere in parlours beggars description. The noise from the machines alone is excruciating. It’s louder than the shop floor of some factories, where it would be a legal requirement to wear ear protection. But this is augmented by piped pop music in a vain attempt to ‘cover’ the din of the machines. The smell is equally foul. The air is thick with smoke, and with the air-conditioners on all year round, you get that recycled dry smokey air that strips the walls of your sinuses. Yummmmmmm, leisuuuure.

And then there’s the buildings themselves. Without exception, they are huge monstrosities.

Huge pachinko parlour

In a country where useable land is scarce and expensive, the fact that pachinko parlours are the biggest buildings in town really should give a clue as to which direction the money’s going in the moment you go in the door. The only thing that can put a pachinko parlour out of business is a bigger pachinko parlour. So with the advent of the supersized parlours, smaller ones dotted around the country have closed down. Not a problem in itself, except that in most cases, the buildings are just left to rot and go derelict at the side of the road. This kind of eyesore is very common and leads me to my next point – like so many of the fruits of the Japanese construction industry, they are built with no consideration for the surrounding area or people. This beast…

A pachinko monstrosity

…is in the middle of a village, for example. (And although it looks derelict, this is in fact in working order. Imagine if it were ever to close…) You could be driving in the picturesque mountains, and turn a corner to be confronted with a flashing neon monstrosity. Yes, despite the size of the places, the owners seem to labour under the illusion that passers-by will be unaware of their existence unless blinding arrays of lights and gaudy colour schemes adorn the outside. This one…

Another pachinko monstrosity

…is on the main road in our town, just on a bend and the lights that ‘show the way’ to the carpark of course have the added effect of blinding passing motorists.

Pachinko, as an industry, operates illegally, but the authorities do nothing about it. Gambling is supposed to be illegal, so the pachinko places don’t give out cash prizes. What they do instead is give out non-cash prizes (usually trivial stuff like lighter flints, or a chocolate bar) which can then be exchanged for cash at an ‘another establishment’ suspiciously nearby, usually no more than a hole in the wall in a back alley, where you see no more than a pair of hands as you pass over your token and get your cash in return. This is common knowledge, and it’s a mark of the power of this business that the authorities condone this systematic abuse of the law. This is the part of the business that ties pachinko firmly to Japan’s criminal underworld, for these illegal cash transactions require both a willingness to take the risk and also a great deal of ready cash. The industry is also well-known for massive tax evasion but again, the authorities pay little more than lip service to tightening controls. Also, and perhaps a little surprising, about a third of the pachinko industry is North Korean owned, which must account for several billion yen of annual funding of the North from Japan. (Another third is South Korean owned, the remaining third owned by Chinese and Japanese).

So let’s re-cap. Japan’s biggest industry by far is illegal. And that, coupled with the fact that there’s a huge number of decidedly shady types involved, means that the police are in no hurry to uphold the law, and the government aren’t too keen on crippling the j-economy further by clamping down on it. Essentially, then, the pachinko guys have free rein, and with it they’ve created an illegal industry out of making folks hand over all their cash by the most banal, time-consuming, physically unhealthy means possible, in the ugliest and most uncomfortable possible surroundings. You might think that the industry would be suffering in Japan’s recent economic downturn. But you’d be wrong. In fact it has shown that is completely recession-proof. Let’s not forget that Japan’s loan companies have been handing out credit like free tissues, so being unemployed, it seems, just means more time to spend in the pachinko parlour. It is indestructable.

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