Fletcher in the News

What Explains the Popularity of Japan's 'Pachinko' Parlors? Prof. Sung-Yoon Lee Weighs In

PRI's The World

Sung-Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

American gambling companies have been pushing for Japan to legalize casinos for years. And when you step into the Zeus pachinko parlor in Kitakyushu, it’s evident why. The country has a massive gambling habit. But then again, they call it “gaming” not “gambling.”

Even at noon on Sunday in this small industrial city, players pack the narrow aisles of the parlor. Smoke carpets the room, and the sound is deafening. Lined up in long dizzying rows, the jangling machines look like the mutant love children of old school pinball games and futuristic one-armed-bandits, each one pimped out with powerful speakers, intense video montages, and a barrage of flashing lights. The cocktail of sound, smoke, and light shake out to a full-on assault of the senses.

The players sit transfixed—one hand resting on the machine’s dial, another on a joystick—their eyes glued to individual video screens and cigarettes dangling from their lips. Most of them look like they retired more than a decade ago, but not Takahara Daiki. …

…Pachinko was first introduced to Japan the 1920s, but it really took off after World War II when the country’s largest minority group started opening parlors. Sung-Yoon Lee is a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He says Koreans flocked to pachinko because they faced citizenship issues and discrimination that barred them from standard businesses.

The pachinko industry has slipped some since it peaked in the 1990s. Back then the government did little to regulate parlors, and the industry brought in about 300 billion dollars a year. But after about a decade of decline, the industry has leveled out, and there’s even speculation now of a steady rise. Parlors actually out-performed Las Vegas casinos back when the financial crisis hit in 2007.

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