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.
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.
"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.