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Steel balls at heart of Okinawa pastime

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2006-03-24

With a fervor befitting Las Vegas casinos, Okinawans daily flock to their favorite places to test lady luck with a bucketful of steel balls.

They’re hooked on pachinko, a game played on machines that seem to be a cross between video slot machines and old-fashioned pinball machines. As with the ‘one armed bandits’ that lure millions to part with their cash to slot machines around the world, Okinawans pony up millions of yen each day at the popular Pachinko Parlors.

Estimates peg the number of Okinawa pachinko players at more than 400,000, a pittance compared to the 40-50 million who scurry to the pachinko parlors in mainland Japan. Of that number, best guesstimates are that 200,000 Okinawans and 30 million Japanese could be counted as veteran, frequent players.

What is pachinko?

At first glance, it’s a game played with thousands of steel balls, first fed into a hopper then shot pinball style across the pachinko machines upper reaches, then falling strategically through series of wire pins to a—hopefully—lucky resting spot. To the novice, it’s a simple matter of pushing the button that propels the electrically triggered balls into action, hoping for the best.

To those attracted to the pachinko parlors, garishly lit with countless neons and thousands more bright incandescent bulbs, it’s like the moth being lured to the flame.

Pachinko is gambling, although Japanese laws are crafted in a fashion that permits the thousands of gaming parlors to classify themselves as entertainment centers rather than casinos. Officially, no cash is ever paid out to pachinko winners, with coupons, gifts and prizes being the end result of those endless hours of watching the balls drop down through the machines.

In reality, at a separate location not operated by the pachinko parlors, winners can exchange those pens, appliances, candy, CD players and more for cash. Consider those sites similar to pawn shops, giving you money for a product. Later, those exchange points sell the merchandise back to the pachinko parlors, with a profit margin added in, of course.

The 3/8” steel balls have been around Japan since at least the early 20th century, with some folklore saying the first pachinko machines were developed in Nagoya. The traditional machines were patterned after Corinthian, an American pinball game machine first imported to Japan in the early 1920’s. The balls bounce their way through the pins while the player sits mesmerized by the action, dropping into open slots at the base of the machine. With luck, the balls fall into scoring niches, worth money.

Pachinko players, at least the committed and dedicated ones, all believe they have ‘system’s to beat the house. It’s the same as gamblers in traditional casinos where each believes he has the special touch to capitalize on blackjack, roulette and poker.

A pachinko parlor will have between 100-500 machines, with units in one of four styles. Hanemono machines use a central scoring slot, and are less expensive to play. Of course, the payouts aren’t big, because the risks are lower.

Deji-Pachi refers to digital pachinko, where the payouts are computer driven and a computer display screen creates an aura similar to a slot machine. More money here, albeit with increased risks.

The ‘Beginners Beware!!’ sign goes in front of Kenrimono pachinko machines. They’re designed for the committed gamblers. The stakes are high, with ratcheting odds, but the risks are correspondingly wicked.

The latest to hit the pachinko parlors are pachi-suro machines, a linkage of the katakana name for pachinko slots. The machines are slot machines in which the player feeds tokens instead of the steel balls. Winnings, such as they may be, are returned in tokens form and then exchanged the same as pachinko balls.

Pachinko parlors have long been linked to gambling rings and the yakuza, largely because of the huge volume of undocumented cash floating around. With its seedy, sordid past, pachinko has been traditionally the domain of men, but that’s changing.

Women are not only finding their way to the pachinko parlors; they’re being courted. Special preferences on machines, refrigerators to keep the family groceries in between shopping trip and home, free coffee and other amenities, and prizes befitting women are all popping up. The prize list has gone so far that, in several pachinko parlors, women can win stylish Gucci purses.

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