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PACHINKO – JAPAN’S NATIONAL PASTIME (PART II)

 

 

Part I of this two-part article examined the general nature and history of pachinko. Part II will talk about the technology used and how the technological and cultural changes in Japan affect the industry.

 

Pachinko Hardware

 

Pachinko machines cost about 150,000 yen (approx. US$1,350), and parlor owners usually buy them outright. Even a small parlor will have at least 100 to choose from. Larger parlors house 500 or more.

 

Although variations abound, and terminology seems to vary somewhat, there are three main types of pachinko machine: Hanemono, Deji-Pachi and Kenrimono.

 

Hanemono (hane means “wing,” and as a suffix, mono means “type”) is the easiest to play. This type of machine has a central scoring slot with wing-like appendages which momentarily open under certain conditions, allowing balls to enter more easily. In hanemono, the placement of the pins remains a factor in winning. They are less expensive to play because they are less risky, but the wins are less spectacular.

 

Deji-Pachi (a contraction of the katakana rendering of “digital pachinko”) refers to a type of machine in which the payoffs are controlled by a computer–hence the name. Deji-pachi machines feature an LED or LCD display in the center, activated when a ball enters a particular slot. The central display usually resembles the drums on a slot machine by Ingatbola88, but pachi-suro, or “pachinko slots” are a different category altogether (see below). On deji-pachi machines, placement of pins is of less consequence than on a hanemono machine. When the central display shows 7-7-7, or some other winning combination, a pay-off sequence known as a “fever” begins, and these machines are sometimes referred to as fiiba type.

 

Kenrimono (kenri means “right/claim/privilege,” and mono means “type”) machines are for serious gambler-types. The name is a reference to certain “rights” which accrue in the course of play. Success on a kenrimono machine requires a detailed knowledge of these “rights” and how to take advantage of them. With one model of kenrimono, the player has a 1 in 300 chance of winning; however, just one win will up the rate ten times (to 1 in 30), and can garner between 800 and 6,500 balls. After the player gets one win, all balls have to be aimed at a specific spot on the right side of the machine. Players are often seen sitting at these machines with several buckets of balls, usually a sure sign they are out to make money. Players can win big but also lose big at these machines. Beginners beware!!

 

A popular recent entry in the pachinko parlors are the pachi-suro machines (a contraction of the katakana rendering of “pachinko-slot”). These are essentially just slot machines which use tokens rather than real coins. The tokens can be traded for prizes just like pachinko balls.

 

Picking a Winner

 

In the older pre-electronic days, the positioning of the inochi no kugi (the “life pins” positioned immediately above the scoring slots) was the tip-off for a hot machine, and parlors re-positioned pins after closing for the night. With the advent of electronic circuits that control wins, the pin connoisseur has been left in the dust. Pins are generally repositioned to increase the number of wins only when a new parlor opens or an old parlor reopens with new machines, in hopes that customers who win big will come back for more.

 

Although pin positions now have little meaning, players still line up in the mornings. Mr. Nakamura Kinzo, a 52-year-old Tokyo restaurant owner and self-styled “pachinko pro,” explains that “the electronic circuits are altered only once every three or four days. Serious players will be in the parlor at closing time checking out which machines are ringing up big wins. Those are the machines they make a beeline for the next morning. Especially if they are kenrimono machines, they’ll give spectacular wins. Forget about the pins…”

 

Even though much of the technique has been taken out of the game, Mr. Nakamura is unconcerned. What’s important, he says, are the cash payoffs. “If it weren’t for the payoffs, I wouldn’t bother to play. It’d be just like a video game. Why waste your money on nothing?”

 

On his best day Mr. Nakamura says he made 92,000 yen ($836) in three hours, starting out with just 3,000 yen. On his worst, he lost 55,000 yen ($500) in about the same period of time. His favorite machine is the hanemono type. “Hanemono is fun,” he says. “The trouble is you can’t find them much anymore. There is less of a risk and you can play longer. Neighborhood parlors are best. Here in Sendagi, we can play four machines at the same time. Other places won’t let you do that.”

 

The current economic hard times may be the pachinko parlor’s best friend. At a time when people are cutting corners and are worried about the economy, pachinko pulsates with neon promise. Says Mr. Nakamura, “With only 3,000 yen, it IS possible to make 100,000 yen (about $900). With the economy the way it is and my own business down, I don’t want to waste my money on a movie or a night out. But pachinko, that’s different — today just might be my lucky day!”

 

High-tech Pachinko Wars

 

Now that computers and other sophisticated electronics are used to control machine payoffs, truly enterprising players must become high-tech buffs in order to keep up.

 

Last year the high-tech pachinko wars made headlines all across Japan. Pitted against each other in this struggle are the parlor owner and the serious recreational or professional player. Both are trying to manipulate the programming of the machines that determines the percentage of wins, a percentage which is set by law. Pachinko pros scour Akihabara and other electronics meccas in search of electronic play enhancers–altered walkie-talkies, short wave gadgets and the like, which are supposed to trick pachinko machines. These devices cost between one and seven thousand dollars. High-tech pachinko hustlers hope to walk in with electronic gadgets shoved up their sleeves, confuse machines into spewing out a cascade of shiny balls and then slip out without ever being detected.

 

Faced with intense competition all over the country, parlor owners have been accused of tampering with win ratios so that on slow afternoons there will be fewer wins and on busy days there will be proportionally more. The idea is that payoffs are more conspicuous on busy days, providing a kind of in-house advertising that will entice customers to come back to spend their time and money.

 

Changing Times

 

Like many long-established sports and recreational pursuits, pachinko is experiencing an erosion in its base of support as Japanese lifestyles and leisure habits change. The entertainment industry has grown and developed, and people have many more ways to spend their free time than in the past. Pachinko must now contend with a variety of competitors, including karaoke, home videos, compact discs, wide-screen TVs and computer video games, just to name a few. The industry is doing all it can to stir up interest and bring in new customers, but many parlors are uneasy about the future, and some are in a state of near-panic.

 

One strategy has been to court a new segment of the adult population–women (it is illegal for children under age 18 to play). Pachinko has traditionally been a male form of recreation, and it suffers from a rather grubby image. The stereotypical pachinko player is a man staring vacantly at the machine, cigarette dangling from his mouth, mindlessly shooting balls for hours on end. Of course there have always been some female pachinko players. In fact, Doi Takako, the former head of the Social Democratic Party and current Speaker of the Diet, is a self-professed fan. Nevertheless, the seedy image of pachinko has kept many women away in the past.

 

Some parlors have responded by improving their furnishings and facilities, many of which are nothing short of luxurious. A number of parlors now offer free coffee, video screens and miniature TVs attached to pachinko machines. A few have even abandoned the once-obligatory marching music in favor of other forms of background music.

 

Parlors are starting to establish special women’s sections and offer such upscale prizes as Gucci bags, hoping to give the game a loftier image. Some parlors even provide refrigerators so housewives can stow their groceries when they stop on the way home from shopping. Many now hold “Ladies’ Days” which seem to be quite popular, even though the only incentive is that the women have the parlor to themselves–men are excluded on those days.

 

In some ways pachinko is a noisy incongruity, a curious counterpoint to a normally peaceful, group-oriented society like Japan. Players sit alone surrounded by harsh lighting and ear-shattering music. Yet despite a few signs of weakness, pachinko is so well established that it seems sure to stay one of Japan’s favorite leisure pursuits for many years to come.