There is a rattling of ball bearings and a continuous chorus of electronic beeps and chimes; a strip-lit interior and the hypnotic flicker of flashing lights and glowing screens. Seated in front of them are several rows of human figures, most of them male, many of them wearing the dark suit of the Japanese salaryman. Their eyes are glazed and, apart from the tapping of cigarettes, the figures are motionless; oblivious to the world around them, like men in a trance.
At the end of a session, these can be swapped for prizes, ranging from soft drinks to wristwatches. However, they are also exchanged for “medals” which are presented at a discreet window around the corner in return for cash.
The pretence is that the proprietors of this window have nothing to do with the operators of the pachinko machines; a fiction that is accepted by the police and which allows the industry to operate despite the prohibition on most forms of gambling. However, this has never quelled anxiety in some quarters about pachinko and its effects on society.
Every year there are tragic reports of parents, zombified by the game, whose children have died in accidents while they killed time in a pachinko parlour. Last month, a survey suggested that a remarkable 4.8 per cent of adults — five or six times the proportion in most countries — had symptoms of addiction to gambling, almost all of them pachinko players.
The days of the neon-lit pachinko halls may, however, be numbered, as young people turn away from the smoky, murky, middle-aged atmosphere of the traditional arcade, and profits begin to slide as a result.
Campaigners fear, however, that in place of the pachinko halls could come something even more pernicious, with Japanese politicians moving to legalise casinos, or “integrated resorts”, as the industry euphemism has it.
The change is part of an effort to encourage more tourists to Japan in the build-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The gambling lords of Las Vegas and Macau are casting hungry looks at the country as the Diet considers legislation which could be passed by the end of the year.
“Hallelujah! Japan’s casino business will be drenched in cash,” concluded a report by the investment bank CLSA, which estimated that a dozen resorts could generate £24 billion a year.
Japan’s health and welfare ministry, which commissioned the alarming survey on addiction, opposes the plan in its present form. It accepts the economic argument, but suggests an alternative: that casinos be built, but that Japanese people be barred from them, with the pleasures of blackjack, baccarat and roulette being the preserve of visiting foreigners.
The locals would enjoy the tax revenue and the tourist income from the gaudy “resorts” — but when the urge to take a flutter becomes overwhelming, they must head to the pachinko arcades.
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