Walking around streets of Tokyo for the first time, I couldn’t have guessed that gambling is illegal in Japan.
Every couple of blocks, I saw what looked like small casinos with bright signs, filled with slot machines.
If I was close enough to the entrance while someone was entering or leaving, I was simultaneously hit by blinding flashes of light and deafening noise of the machines.
That was the first time I saw pachinko.
Even though it was a weekday afternoon, I saw a dozen or so players trying their luck at each parlor.
Their faces showed little emotion, making it hard for me to tell who was winning and who was losing.
I did notice a stack of racks full of steel balls.
I asked what they were, and was told that they can be traded for prizes at the counter.
“Oh, you mean they’re basically casino chips,” I said. “So you take them to the cashier and trade them for money.” No, I was told.
Gambling is illegal in Japan.
So even though the players paid money each time they played, the parlors couldn’t give them the payouts directly.
Instead, the players received some “tokens,” which they then took to a small shop outside and sold for cash amount equivalent to their wins.
“That’s still gambling, isn’t it?” I asked, a little confused.
There was no hesitation before the reply: “No, it’s not. Not technically anyway. But don’t ask me why.”
If this sounds kind of shady, that’s exactly how I felt at the time.
But if you think it’s just small underground operations, nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s a huge industry. According to Bloomberg, the amount of money players bet annually is approximately 19 trillion yen.
But pachinko isn’t the only exception to the strict gambling laws in Japan.
Horse racing and motor sports also attract huge number of bettors at each event.
Over the years, there have been talks to increase legalized gambling activities in Japan.
Last year, the LDP (the current ruling party) submitted a bill that would have allowed casino operations if passed.
It hasn’t happened yet due to political reasons arising from fears that gambling may lead to addiction problems.
But in the near future, it wouldn’t be an unlikely scenario.
And when the first casinos open across Japan, I think a lot of people will probably realize that life didn’t change so much after all.