The word comes from “pachin” (slap or hit) and “ko” (a ball) and is a vertical pinball game in which many metal balls clatter along the pins and traps on the machine’s bright-gaudy face. If the player does well, then more balls are released. It’s a kind of mixture of slot machine and pinball machine, and rows and rows of them are in places called parlors, which look remarkably like casinos, although gambling is not technically legal in Japan. Pachinko took off in the 1950s and is still incredibly popular in Japan, with whole complexes devoted to it—-all very bright and colorful, blazing with neon and often garish. Gaming places are often called Vegas, Vegas, as in Sapporo, and in many cities and towns the pachinko parlors are around the main train station—we could see a number from our hotel room in Kyoto.
Some of the students like to play, but most don’t apparently. They say that people of all ages play and can win prizes, usually of items, like cigarettes or food. In some places, the winners can exchange these for cash at a backstreet counter, although this is not actually permitted. There are stories of people being addicted to the game, of old people using much of their meager savings to play, of game-fixing, and of a job called “pin straightener”—someone who straightens the pins, which supposedly bend from over-use.
Whatever, it has generated a certain pachinko culture, and as foreign visitors it’s very interesting for us to see the huge complexes and to walk past some of the smaller ones with windows and to look in and see all those totally absorbed people twirling knobs and controlling little balls, usually accompanied by more flashing lights and loud music! Many sources say that pachinko profits top the entire service industry in Japan. Wow!