The Secret Life of Pachinko

If you’ve ever hurled a skee-ball or whacked a mole, you’ve played redemption games:  those prize machines found at Chuck E. Cheeses and mildewed arcades across the country.  As videogames became more popular at home, these sort of arcade machines have become more and more popular.   They give players a reason to leave the house and plunk their quarters/tokens into the slots. 

But while Americans cashing tickets for Silly Bandz find these games quaint, in Japan they’re a serious – and shadowy – billion dollar business.  The most popular of these games is pachinko, those vertical pinball machines that award prizes if the ball you shoot bounces off pegs into the right holes.  Japanese pachinko parlors are both a national pastime (with professional players), and a portal into one of gaming’s seediest underworlds.  

Once ruled by the yakuza organized crime, the industry is ruled by cops, according to investigative journalist Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on The Police Beat in Japan.  “The police have made this their own personal retirement plan,” he says.  The meta-game:   an elaborate, but transparent, redemption system that lets players “sell” their pachinko prizes for cash at nearby shops – thus skirting Japan’s anti-gambling laws.   Here's how it works.

The Pachinko Parlor

Found in and around train stations, these bright and blinking smoke-filled parlors seduce a cross-section of gamers:   from blue collar and unemployed workers to teens and moms.  Compulsive players have been caught leaving their kids baking alone in cars outside for hours.  “Now the lots are patrolled after a couple kids died of heat exhaustion,” says Adelstein.

The Machines

Pachinko machines brandish licensed manga and anime characters, much like latest generation of slot machines in the U.S.  Digital counters and flashing lights react to the falling balls.  Pachinko costs around $5 to play, but parlors have phased out cash for payment cards.  “It’s another racket,” says Adelstein, “the police agency forced them to introduce the pre-paid card system.”

The Redemption Center

When players score, the machine hits so-called “fever” state, spitting out piles of tiny metallic balls – sometimes thousands at a time, which winners eagerly catch in trays.   Balls get redeemed at prize counters offering a surreal array of goods:   from rice cookers to disembodied sex toy mouths.  “Sometimes they have ridiculously worthless things like teddy bears priced at a value of $400,” says Adelstein, “that’s because they’re light to take around the corner and exchange for cash.”

The Prize Exchange Place

The so-called “three shop system” of pachinko plays out like this:  you win a prize, then take it around the corner to shop that exchanges it for cash.  Exchange shops are usually often unmarked, but “the pachinko addicts will tell you where to go,” Adelstein says.  The exchange shop then sells the merchandise back to the pachinko parlor at wholesale.  To keep players from selling goods outside the system, items are often micro-tagged.

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