The first thing that hits you is the sheer volume. It's freakin' loud as soon as the doors glide open, and it smacks your eardrums so hard, your body has no choice but to tense up as if it were readying itself for a fight of some sort. The next thing is the burning sensation from your nose and eyes as the fumes from dozens of cigarettes being puffed in unison wafts into your vicinity. Take a few steps into one of theover 100,000 pachinko parlors in Japan, and this is what you can expect to feelwithin the first minute of being there. But then the next thing you're sure to see is the laser-focused attention from the players all seated in front of rows of gleaming pachinko machines, each blaring out its own crescendo of beeps, boops, and other sound effects. Most sit transfixed on the LCD screens embedded in the center of the machines, left hand wrapped around a beverage or cigarette, and the right one twisting a knob on the machine that sends the balls flying into the play field. Welcome to the world of pachinko.
First seen in Japan around 1921, the game started out as a mechanical novelty amusement often seen at summer matsuri, the neighborhood carnivals often seen around shrines and temples in Japan at that time. The devices themselves are something like a pinball machine and a slot machine's love child; the player pulled a plunger that fired a metal ball into a pegged board and the ball then dropped through the field Plinko style. If the ball landed in an area where there was a hole or gate, it would then be ejected out of the machine and into a bucket below where the player could then exchange the "kept" balls for a prize. The game was popular with children, but became a post-war amusement with adults starting in 1948 when the first pachinko parlor opened in Nagoya.
The prizes you can win by playing pachinko can be anything from a cigarette lighter, to restaurant and department store gift certificates and even vehicles; gambling for cash is illegal in Japan. While one will never walk out of a parlor with as tack of bills, that problem was solved by creating "exchange unions," places where special tokens and trinkets won in the parlor could be "sold" for cold hard yen. Traditionally these places were run by the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, however these days it is a highly commercial and legal operation, with many retired police working in the industry to oversee its regulation. By law these exchange unions are supposed to be totally separate from the operators of the pachinko parlors, however that statute has been known to be overlooked more than a few times. Of course this opens up the game from mere amusement to straight up gambling, and like all games of chance, there is always going to be a group of people who are willing to face the odds to try and make a go at hitting a massive payout. On the condition of anonymity, they've agreed to share their stories with us.
Mr. Aobara and Mr. Kuroyama (not their real names) were once living the life. "I'd say out of 365 days in the year, I was playing pachinko about 340 of them... And each one of those days is at least 10 hours of gaming. It's the only way you canmake a living out of it," says Kuroyama. "I usually started in the middle of the morning until very late at night. It really depended on when the parlor I was interested in opened up," notes Aobara. "Its a lonely life too." Pros sit all day in front of a machine they've staked out as "easy payoff" machines, not dissimilar to how slot machine games in the States case out machines in casinos that are"ready to pay"; close to hitting the jackpot. "It's not like slot machines though. Remember, these are more like video games and have set jackpot modes, and at one time it was easier to figure out what state those machines would be in by just watching closely," according to Kuroyama. "Oh yeah, and that part is easy to find out because there are websites and magazines you can check from other experienced players that would give you hints," Aobara finishes. Indeed if you check your local convenience store magazine rack, you'll see a number of titles dedicated to the pachinko industry. Every page is chock full of how the newest machines work, what is needed to get it into the dozens of payout modes and what kinds of images and sounds one can expect when the machine goes into it's "fever mode"
"That's how I got into becoming a 'pachipro' actually, because when I was 18 years old, my sempai (an older friend or acquaintance) was already doing it, and I became curious after checking out the magazines he had,"says Aobara, as he slides a copy of one of the magazines across the table. I have to admit, the way the magazines are formatted with eye-popping text and blinged-out graphics and pictures, It kind of made me want to go out and sink a couple hundred yen into a few hours of smokey, ear-splitting amusement. But can you really make a living out of shooting balls into a bucket all day?
"Sure I considered quitting my job when I looked after a few months and saw I was making about 300,000 a month just playing part-time". That's about US $3000 or so. But the life comes with its caveats according to Kuroyama"It's not as glamorous as you think. Poker players and even horse-better shave always been romanticized but no one ever thinks of pachinko players like that." Pachinko is labeled a "poor-man's-time waster," and those who play it longer than a few times a week are instantly thought of as having a gambling problem or a social misfit. "Yeah, I've never told my family what I was doing. They'd flip out if they knew," puffed Aobara."So yeah It was fun when I was younger but a few years of it and I was trying to find anyway I could to get out." Things changed for the pair (and apparently a lot of other pros) about 3 years ago when the regulations changed on the so-called easy payout machines, effectively banning their use in pachinko parlors. A known gimmick in the industry, there were always somewhere between 1 and 10 of the easy hitting machines in certain parlors in order to lure the pros and average players to keep playing.
"That's how you stay in business as a pro, go and find that machine that is able to hit in a short amount of time so you can maximize yours. Time is the enemy, maybe more than money!" exclaimed Kuroyama."I knew it was over when I found myself sitting in the same spot there for a whole day... losing for 3 or 4 days straight." Aobara found out the sameway. "I was thinking it was just some bad luck or I wasn't paying attention, but everyone I communicated with had the same issue too. In the end, we cashed out for good and quit."
So what about the life of the pachinko pro right now? "There is no life as far as we know" they state unanimously. The rules changed, and made it pretty much impossible to earn anything more than train fare or a decent meal at a family restaurant most days. If you're lucky. "Don't get into this lifestyle, especially now," Kuroyama affirms. "It's just like the label says,'for amusement only'." Perhaps that's truer now more than ever. They've moved on, and speak about their past lives with a tinge of nostalgia, but admit life is much better now that they've put the game behind them. "I don't think I can ever tell my parents, but I have told some of my friends. Some of them weren't as surprised as I thought they'd be... but my relationships with them are much stronger now that I don't have to keep any secrets."
Cover photo by Dick Thomas Johnson