Pachinko parlors court Japan’s youth

Martin Fackler
Customers play pachinko machines in a pachinko parlor in Tokyo, Japan.
Tomohiro Ohsumi | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Part pinball and part roulette, with the lure of quick cash winnings and little silver balls ricocheting off pins and bumpers, the Japanese game of pachinko once seemed a permanent feature of the nation's postwar landscape, its arcade-style sounds and lights providing a blinking, cacophonous backdrop to life in Japan during the boom years.

In recent years, though, one pachinko hall after another has shut its doors as legions of loyal fans aged and passed away, the industry was tainted by mob ties and — perhaps the biggest turnoff for Japanese youth — the game acquired the musty scent of an artifact of their parents' generation.

Now, like Japan itself, pachinko is attempting a comeback.

With new halls that are bigger, cleaner, more luxurious and friendlier than ever, the pachinko industry is trying to reinvent itself by appealing to new customers, mainly younger Japanese who grew up playing video and computer games, and by cleaning up its image, much as casino operators made Las Vegas more family friendly by driving out the mob.

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The most ambitious of these new stores opened in April here in the central industrial city of Nagoya: the $100 million Zent Nagoya Kita, billed as the biggest pachinko parlor in Japan with more than 1,200 machines.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a deafening roar filled the cavernous parlor as mostly middle-aged and older men sat smoking cigarettes and shooting the little silver balls, machine gun-style, through thickets of metal pins in what looked like vertical pinball machines without flippers. They used dials to adjust the balls' trajectories and drop them into strategically positioned holes; the more balls go in, the bigger the prize.

Pachinko machines were originally simple mechanical affairs, but now they are fitted with flashy, sometimes outlandish electronics to appeal to the digital-gaming generation. Those in Zent Nagoya Kita have liquid-crystal displays that show images from Hollywood movies, animated chorus lines of dancing sea turtles and smiling whales or clips of one of Japan's teenage starlets disrobing into a bikini.

A staff of deeply bowing young women dressed like flight attendants work the floor, greeting patrons and handing out prizes. Another feature less visible to visitors: cameras at every entrance that use face-recognition software to spot known gangsters, who are then asked to leave.

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"The only way for pachinko to survive is to step out of the shadows and become a respectable member of society," said Tetsuya Makino, a former pachinko hall worker who is now director of the Pachinko Museum in suburban Tokyo.

But to appeal to Japan's shrinking population of young people, many say the industry must do more to shed its reputation as a haven for yakuza gangsters and North Korean sympathizers, and modernize the game itself to attract tech-savvy youth who prefer online alternatives. And they say pachinko must do this quickly,before the arrival of casino and resort-operating companies that may soon enter Japan if full-fledged gambling is legalized.

But just as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to restore growth in Japan, there are many who see hope for a revival of pachinko, which first took off after Japan's defeat in World War II using ball bearings from destroyed armament plants. The game offered a rare source of entertainment for a prostrated nation, and then during the heady decades of postwar economic rebirth, it flourished as a socially tolerated form of gambling for Japan's hard-toiling office and factory workers.

Still, according to Mr. Makino and others, pachinko has long been seen as operating on the social margins because most of the original hall operators were Koreans who had immigrated after Japan colonized their homeland in the early 20th century.With most doors shut by discrimination, pachinko provided one of the few avenues for economic advancement for the ethnic minority. Even today, about three-quarters of pachinko hall owners are ethnic Koreans.

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The game also acquired an outlaw image from the yakuza, Japan's large organized crime syndicates, which were drawn to the industry by a legal subterfuge that permitted pachinko to thrive despite laws prohibiting gambling. The police turned a blind eye as patrons received prizes like cigarette cartons or tiny pieces of gold, which they could take to a small window in a nearby building and exchange for money. Pachinko hall owners were legally barred from operating thecash windows, which often fell under the control of organized crime.

The game's image also suffered because some of the hall owners sent their earnings back to families in what is now North Korea, turning pachinko into a source of hard currency for that isolated nation. During pachinko's peak in the 1990s,hundreds of millions of dollars may have flowed into North Korea every year,though the industry says recent economic sanctions have largely cut off that financing.

Despite the image problems, pachinko remains a huge business, with $180 billion in sales last year. Japan's 12,000 pachinko halls are ubiquitous, found in front of most train stations and even in the most remote rural villages, where the glow of their lights can be seen for miles at night. But the industry is also clearly in crisis. From a peak of 30 million in the early 1990s, the number of people who report having played pachinko at least once during the preceding year fell to barely more than 10 million last year, according to the Japan Productivity Center, a market research company based in Tokyo.

To combat the decline, Yoshio Tsuzuki, the president of Zent Company, which owns Zent Nagoya Kita, borrowed an idea from Mr. Abe's growth policies by saying the industry must do more to appeal to women, which Mr. Tsuzuki called the largest untapped pool of potential new customers.

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To lure more women, the parlor features a smoke-free, women-only lounge, and luxurious bathrooms with tall mirrors, designer wallpaper and chandeliers. Besides the game hall, there is a miniature shopping mall, with a convenience store, ramen noodle restaurant, coffee shop, laundromat, flower shop, children's day care center, wine cellar and even a small art gallery.

"We are hoping that people who have never done pachinko before might come here to do their laundry, use the day care for their children, eat a bowl of ramen, admire a painting — and maybe also stay to give pachinko a try," said Mr. Tsuzuki, 40, whose father founded Zent Company.

He said about a fifth of the store's patrons were women, about twice the industry average. However, on a recent night, only a few young women could be seen. One of them, Rina Motoi, 26, who had come with a friend after getting off her job at a bank, said that while she felt comfortable in this store, pachinko as a whole still seemed shady.

"Pachinko still has the same bad, old image as horse racing," Ms. Motoi said. "Most my friends would rather play on the net at home."