With possible legislation in the works to build casinos in Japan, gambling is a hot topic in the press right now. And when you talk about gambling in Japan, the conversation starts with pachinko.
Pachinko parlors are everywhere and they are gaudy. Whatever you think of Las Vegas or neon lights, I promise you that pachinko parlors look like a nightmare. I remember on my first trip to Japan I kept taking pictures of the pachinko parlors because I couldn’t believe A how many there were and B how ugly they looked (also C they usually had weird English written on the side of the building).
Why is pachinko so popular? Because it is gambling. But gambling is illegal in Japan, so pachinko throws the thinnest of veils over the gambling and acts like it’s just a game where customers walk away with nothing more than prizes. It’s like a carnival!
The above graphic explains how the system works: players (the silhouette) have balls. Little metal balls, usually by the tray-load. You put the balls in the machine to play, and if you win, more balls come out. At any time you can take your balls to the counter and return them in exchange for a prize (think cigarette lighters, stuffed animals, anything but actual cash). This is parts 1 and 2 shown above, and it’s the official version of what pachinko is.
But what happens next is the player leaves the pachinko parlor and goes to a small window. That window is typically next to or just around the corner from the pachinko parlor. There is no sign above the window, but everyone knows where it is. At this window, players sell their pachinko prizes for cash (steps 3 and 4, above). Steps 5 and 6, where the prizes are returned to the pachinko parlor, happen behind the scenes.
Thus pachinko players are in it to win money, and even though the money doesn’t come directly from the pachinko parlor, it’s a system that everyone understands. Everyone, that is, except the cops.
The Asahi Shimbun has a quote from a police spokesperson claiming that “[Japanese police] have no knowledge of pachinko prizes being exchanged for cash.” (日本語で「パチンコで換金が行われているなど、まったく存じあげないことでございまして」)
…which is kind of like saying they have no knowledge that massage parlors offer sexual services because it doesn’t say “sex = 15,000 yen” on the sign outside.
Obviously this police spokesperson was feeding the press a line, but what has Japanese netizens baffled is: why? Everyone knows how pachinko works; the players, parlors, and exchange windows are all operating in full public view (unlike, say, the sex workers) so why feign ignorance? Maybe the cops just don’t want to explain to the press why pachinko is accepted while underground casinos get busted?
I don’t have an answer, but it’s weirder that the cops didn’t have a better answer prepared. It strikes me as dishonest to shrug your shoulders rather than admit that you look the other way.
UPDATE: maybe the cops look the other way and don’t want to talk about pachinko because they make money on the deal.