Some of the most popular tourist destinations for Japanese people are places like Korea, Macau (which lays claim to the biggest casino in the world!) and Singapore. It’s not only because they are so close (Korea is easily reached by a ferry – it’s much closer than, for example, Tasmania from the Autralian mainland) – a big attraction for many Japanese (mainly men) is the gambling.

Gambling in Japan is mostly illegal, so punters travel to casinos in close-by Asian countries for gambling holidays. Almost all of the gambling that is legal in Japan is controlled by the government and raises revenue for the country. One of the only forms of gambling that isn’t controlled by the government is pachinko – they do however tax pachinko parlour owners.

Pachinko & Slots at Fujioka (north Toyota) Japan
Usually in the morning there is a line of people waiting to get in, but it's winter now so they're not out so early.

Since living in Japan I’ve met a few guys (mostly 30+ year old business men) who, having a bit of cash to spare, go on yearly trips to Las Vegas, Macau, Singapore as well as Australia.

While in many countries you can play online slots, which is taking off all over the world, there is no doubt that packinko parlours are hugely popular in Japan. In Australia, we call the pachinko equivalent “pokies” for poker machine – and their regulation is a hot political issue in Australia.

Apan Club in Toyota, Aichi, Japan.
Apan is one of Japan's biggest pachinko parlour chains.

So if gambling in Japan is illegal, why is pachinko even allowed at all? Well, they use a simple and very obvious loop-hole… and I’m guessing that loop-hole comes down to the fact that the law says you can’t give money as the direct reward/prize for playing a game

Apan Central Stage in Toyota, Aichi, Japan.
This Apan Central Stage is typical of a pachinko parlour... ridiculous and shiny looking.
Funny Japrish sign at a pachinko parlour in Japan.
Some of the funniest examples of Japrish can be seen enticing English speakers into the parlours.

When playing pokies in Australia the cash is inserted directly into the machine. When betting on horses you pay for your bet with the bookie. When playing online casino games (like this site here) you use your credit card.

You don’t put any money into a pachinko machine. Instead, you buy these little balls that look like ball bearings. Think of it like buying tokens at TimeZone, allowing you to play the game.

With these balls you play the machine and try to win more balls. On many machines, this is the only point of difference you can find from a normal pokie (slot machine). There are so many different types of themed machines…

Pachinko Posters – Advertising Gambling in Japan

Evangelion anime pachinko poster
Pachinko poster for an Evangelion anime themed game.
Gambling Posters from Japan
More pachinko posters.
A couple more pachinko posters.
...and some more pachinko posters.

When you’ve finished playing, and hopefully after winning a stack of balls, you can exchange these balls for a huge range of things – from cigarettes to Armani bags. It’s just like taking those TimeZone tickets you won and exchanging them for prizes.

You can also exchange these balls (in a roundabout way) for cash. At the pachinko parlour the lucky punter exchanges pachinko balls for tokens. The tokens are then taken to a nearby, often dodgy looking booth that is dettached from the main pachinko parlour. These booths are actually “token buying businesses”. This is the loop-hole that makes the whole thing illegal – technically, you don’t get cash as a prize directly from the game.

So that’s how one of the most popular forms of gambling in Japan works.

Whilst walking around the city last weekend I passed more than a few parlours. All the photos above are of pachinko parlours I passed in just one day. Here’s a few more…

Maruhan gambling in Japan
This one is just outside Nagoya - Maruhan is another popular chain.
Pachinko for gambling in Japan
Peace Spot - what a contradiction... inside it sounds like a rave full of screaming teenage girls and pinball machines.
Young Pachinko Parlour
This is a really small parlour a short walk from my house.
Yamanote 36 Pachinko Japan
Yamanote 36 is another popular chain.
Yamanote 36 (Side) Pachinko Parlour in Japan
Yamanote 36 parlour from the side. They're typical of any gambling place... windowless.
The only place for gambling in Japan
Yet another chain - Mega World.
Apan Club
Maybe club means it's mimicing a nightclub...