Those little silver balls

You’ll see a lot of pachinko parlours in Japan but it’s a confusing game for outsiders. For the Japanese economy, though, it’s a huge earner!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Pachinko in Japan

The little silver balls spurt out into the tray. “Jkjkjkjkjkjkjkjk,” is the best way I can come up with to write the sound they make. The silver orbs glimmer with hope and promise. My fortune could lay with one of them. They are more than just balls in a tray – they are the key to unlocking the treasures within the machine in front of me.

The only problem is that I’m not quite sure how to use the key.

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I’m in Japan and I’ve decided to come into a pachinko parlour to see what all the fuss is about. But it’s a confusing place and it’s already taken two helpful attendants, some terrible Japanese (on my part – I’m sure theirs was fine), and some awkward hand movements (on their part this time) to get this far.

If you’ve never heard of pachinko, you’re probably a bit confused right now. If you have heard of pachinko, you’re probably even more confused. It does not make sense.

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From the outside, it looks a bit like a game but it’s essentially a way of gambling. It’s the Japanese equivalent of poker machines (or slot machines, if you like). Except it’s not gambling. <Wink>. Because this kind of gambling is illegal in Japan. So at the end of your time at the machine, you get a coupon which you can trade at the gift shop for food or toys or drinks. Oh, unless you want to walk the three metres to the little window next door that will exchange it for cash. But it’s not gambling! <Wink.>

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Anyway, I’ve jumped ahead of myself because I haven’t won any points to exchange yet, although I’m already a bit worried they won’t have enough cash at the window next door when I do hit the jackpot!

So eventually the attendant who showed me how to get the little silver balls into my tray comes back to help me when he realises I have no idea what I’m doing. Let me paint the scene for you. The silver spheres are in this container at the bottom of the machine; in front of me is the display which has a video screen in the centre; around that is a board with lots of gold metal pins sticking out; circling this board are lots of flashing coloured lights; and down near my hand are a couple of buttons and a large knob which turns clockwise.

The attendant puts his hand on the knob and turns it gently to the right for me (I promise this is not supposed to sound dirty). Balls start flying (I’m not doing so well with that promise, sorry). He gestures for me to put my hand on it and I grip it in the position he’s holding it (OK, I give up now!).

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The idea behind pachinko is that my turning the knob you you shoot these little silver balls up into the machine and they bounce off the gold pins. If they land in the catcher in the middle then it starts three reels turning on the video screen and if they match up you win! Or so I’m told… as it turns out, I wouldn’t know.

I actually think it’s a bit unfair – and this isn’t just a sore loser talking. I mean, it is a sore loser talking, but it’s not just a sore loser talking. The problem, as I see it, is that there are two sets of chance. Firstly, you have to get the ball into the catcher (which is harder than it looks), and then you have to get the reels to line up. I didn’t have much luck with either. The 1000 yen (US$10.20) note I put in turned into nothing. Although it did take about half an hour for me to work my way through it, bolstered by occasional small wins which produced more balls in the tray.

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My contribution to the pachinko machine is a mere small ball in an ocean of silver globes, though. Get ready for this fact – the annual revenue of the pachinko industry in Japan is US$378 billion dollars. Yes, you read that right, billion! Several articles I’ve read point out that this is four times the profit of the entire world’s casinos… but I think you need to take the comparison with a grain of soy-flavoured salt, because they measure things differently in different countries. (For example, are we talking about the total amount of money that is gambled or the amount that is left over once the winnings have been paid.) Regardless, you can see the scale of the pachinko parlours here in Japan.

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As for me… well, thankfully pachinko has not an addict made. I could see myself spending a lot of time and money in these parlours if I understood what was going on – the lights and the music are all pretty cute. But perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned here for governments all around the world. If you want to tackle problem gambling, just put everything in Japanese!

13 thoughts on “Those little silver balls”

  1. How you managed to stay thing long in the parlor is pretty impressive. The noise in those things is so deafening that I can barely walk through the entrance.
    I still don’t understand the obsession with pachinko. I tried once, thinking is was going to be fun or something. Nope. I thought it was a game, that required skills. I tried to turn my knob more or less gently, with subtlety. Nope, you’re just supposed to turn it to the max and wait. Lame.

    You said you didn’t win anything, but you did. You said you won more balls at some point. Well, that’s what you win when you play. At the end, you bring your balls to the counter (or a machine?) and your balls are counted and turned into a “prize.”

    Also, at the end you mention governments, but don’t forget that the pachinko industry has strong ties with another “industry”, the yakuza.

    • You’re right, I did win more balls. But I never won more than I had spent so I didn’t really consider that to be a ‘win’. If I was going to cash out and cut my losses then it would have been a bit pointless. I wanted a jackpot!!

      And, yes, we can’t forget the role the yakuza have in the pachinko industry (it seems organised crime and gambling always go together) but I don’t really know much about that side of things.

  2. Do they offer alcohol? This could make a difference?
    Have you ever played Peggle? It is one of these casual games on the computer. You shoot balls and try to get orange pegs to disappear. It sounds oddly similar.

    I have seen pictures of parlors, but don’t think I could deal with the noise though.

    • It’s really loud – but that ended up being one of the exciting things. I got all psyched up when my machine would start playing songs and making all sorts of weird beeps and stuff.
      I haven’t heard of Peggle, though. Not sure if it’s the same kind of thing.

  3. I lived in Vegas for a number of years and I am definitely not lucky at gambling. I suspect pachinko would be no different. Good for you giving it a try, and even better for walking away!


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