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Japan’s defiant Pachinko parlours

Persuading gambling parlours to close proved a daunting challenge for government during emergency.

If Japan were to be represented by a single icon, the list of contenders would run from a streaking bullet train to a cutesy Hello Kitty. Among the less edifying candidates, but one whose place on the list is incontestable, is the pachinko parlour — a garish gambling hall — whiling away the hours in which is arguably the nation’s most beloved pastime.

Pachinko originated in Japan in the 1920s and is a cross between a pinball and slot machine. Think of the weight machines that used to adorn railway platforms in India and then imagine them on steroids. Game parlours dot the Japanese archipelago, cropping up in the smallest towns. They are usually smoky lairs where dead-eyed players sit side-by-side in long rows, mechanically pulling levers and watching pinballs rolling.

They are also neat examples of the less-known Japanese penchant for exploiting loopholes, putting paid to the ‘well-behaved’ and ‘rule-abiding’ stereotype that is associated with the country. It is often the letter rather than the spirit of the law that is abided by. Gambling (with a very few exceptions like horse racing) is ostensibly illegal in Japan. Pachinko parlours circumvent this ban by making gamblers exchange tokens/prizes for cash at booths off the main premises. For decades, this cash exchange was controlled by Japan’s yakuza mafia, giving it a dangerously illicit flavour. These days, while still operating in a legal gray zone, the pachinko business has become more kosher, with many places simply erecting a glass wall between the token counter and the cashier.

Tokyo alone boasts around 760 parlours and Japan spends some $200 billion on the game every year. To put that in perspective, that’s an amount equal to 30 times the annual gambling revenue of Las Vegas, and 2.5 times the GDP of Sri Lanka. The industry employs more people than the top 10 car manufacturers and accounts for nearly half of the country’s leisure activities.

It follows therefore that when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic necessitated the declaration of an emergency, pachinko parlours were on the frontline of the fight against the virus. As the focal points for large gatherings of game addicts, persuading them to shutter became a priority for provincial governments across the country.

The need for persuasion rather than the easy expectation of obedience was the result of a Constitution that does not permit the Japanese authorities to use punitive measures against its citizens to enforce an emergency: a state-of-affairs that has its roots in the determination to prevent civil rights abuses reminiscent of the Second World War period.

By mid-April, it had become clear that simple requests to pachinko operators to close were not fully effective. Many parlours continued to be thronged with gamers even as coronavirus cases spiked.

Lethal weapon

The most lethal weapon in the local government arsenal was to “name and shame” businesses that were proving recalcitrant. In late April, the Governor of Osaka named six parlours that had failed to comply with repeated requests by the municipality made through phone calls and letters. The ensuing ‘shame’ had the desired effect. But the government in Tokyo was struggling with the same issue. Yuriko Koike, the Tokyo Governor, made daily threats about naming and shaming the capital’s emergency-violating pachinko halls. Daily news conferences were consumed with ‘will she won’t she’ reveal the names-speculation. Teams of bureaucrats were sent fanning out into the city to try their hand at personal persuasion. For a while, it was touch and go, but by early May, Ms. Koike too was left with no option but to unleash the dreaded “name and shame”.

Now that the novel coronavirus curve is flattening and emergency measures are gradually being eased, the pressure on pachinko parlours is concomitantly lifting. But, as with other businesses, a post-COVID-19 world will likely be a brave new one of social distancing and hushed conversations that will change the complexion of pachinko. Cooperative associations of entertainment facilities are busy establishing guidelines for reducing the number of machines available to play on, to prevent customers from sitting side by side.

Smoking is to be prohibited except in designated areas. What’s more, the volume of the background music will also be lowered so that customers won’t have to shout when conversing. Clearly, even if the game itself survives unscathed, the coronavirus will have claimed an atmosphere that once had claim to iconic status.

(Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist based in Tokyo)

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