Japanese pachinko parlors lure South Korean tourists after gambling ban

March 04, 2013


FUKUOKA--In four hours, a South Korean couple lost 10,000 yen ($107) at a pachinko parlor here, adding to their previous day’s loss of 100,000 yen in six hours.

But they were undeterred, appearing mesmerized by the loud music, flashing lights and the sounds of metal balls bouncing in the machines around them.

“Pachinko in Japan has bright liquid crystal displays,” said the 37-year-old self-employed businessman, who was on a four-day trip with his wife, 36. “We will play tomorrow, too.”

Like the couple, an increasing number of South Koreans have been traveling to Japan just to play pachinko since Seoul banned similar establishments in 2006 to fight gambling addictions.

The Japanese pachinko industry is encouraging this trend, seeking foreign patrons to make up for the decline in domestic customers due in part to stricter regulations prompted by Japan’s own gambling problems.

“Make pachinko into a tourism resource,” an industry newspaper headline read.

Another article carried the headline: “Impress foreign tourists with ‘Japanese culture.’”

Annually, 300,000 to 500,000 South Korean sightseers visit Fukuoka Prefecture. Some reserve only hotels and flights and spend much of their time in pachinko parlors, according to travel agencies.

In two hours or so, more than 10 South Korean couples or groups entered or left the large pachinko parlor near JR Hakata Station where the businessman and his wife were losing money.

In South Korea, pachinko-like establishments, called “adult entertainment rooms,” peaked at around 15,000, and many were open around the clock. But gambling addictions became a social problem after some machines allowed players to win 3 million to 4 million won (250,000 yen to 340,000 yen) in an hour.

A gambler in his 30s killed himself after piling up 100 million won in debt. A man who lost 1.5 million won set an entertainment parlor on fire. And a college student spent several tens of millions of won at adult entertainment rooms using a parent’s credit card.

Cozy ties between politicians and the industry were also criticized.

An employee of a shipbuilding company in Busan explained how his addiction to gambling controlled his life.

“Adult entertainment rooms are a mechanism that feeds on the life-blood of ordinary people,” the 63-year-old said. “More people would have fallen victim if they were not banned.”

He said he once stayed at a parlor for three straight days without going to work, living on deliveries of rolled sushi and the free coffee available.

The man ended up 60 million won in debt.

He now goes to a local addiction treatment center set up by the South Korean government.

“Adult entertainment rooms dragged many people into gambling, including women, seniors and other people who did not have anything to do with it,” the director of the center said. “Once people get addicted, they tend to dabble in other forms of gambling.”

Underground adult entertainment rooms, where organized crime syndicates are involved, are hidden in the backstreets of South Korea. And a new problem has emerged related to addictions to illegal online gambling, such as roulette and card games in which points earned can be exchanged for cash.

In Japan, gambling is technically illegal but pachinko parlors can get around the law by letting the winners exchange prizes--based on the number of metal balls they accumulate--with cash outside the parlors.

The self-employed South Korean businessman said he first took to pachinko about 10 years ago and often played it once a week before it was banned in his country.

His second trip to Japan for pachinko came after he studied a South Korean website introducing Japanese pachinko parlors.

The Japanese pachinko industry has also gone online to bring foreign customers to parlors that appear all over Japan.

An advertisement agency in Tokyo opened a website introducing pachinko parlors for foreigners two years ago, and it aims to increase the number of parlors featured from the current 300 to 1,000 in 2014. The company receives fees from the parlors.

Seventy percent of site visitors are from China and South Korea, with China holding the largest share.

“It is time that we turn our serious attention to foreign tourists to underpin the industry,” the company president said.

In 2007, the Japanese government imposed regulations on pachinko slot machines that strongly encourage players to spend more. Advertisements seen as promoting the spirit of gambling were banned in 2011 and 2012.

Due in part to these moves, customer spending at pachinko parlors fell to 19 trillion yen in 2011, down 30 percent from 1995. The number of parlors also fell 30 percent to 12,000.

According to an academic survey released in 2010, an estimated 9.6 percent of men and 1.6 percent of women in Japan were pathological gamblers. The survey received 4,100 valid responses from 7,500 people contacted.

Naoko Takiguchi, a sociology professor at Otani University and expert on gambling problems, said 80 percent of people who attend self-help groups cite pachinko and slot machines as the reasons for their gambling addictions.

She said it is difficult to ban pachinko outright in Japan because many people are employed, but certain restrictions, such as enabling customers to set a spending limit, are necessary.

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A South Korean man plays a slot machine at a pachinko parlor in Fukuoka’s Hakata Ward. (Yoichiro Kodera)

A South Korean man plays a slot machine at a pachinko parlor in Fukuoka’s Hakata Ward. (Yoichiro Kodera)

  • A South Korean man plays a slot machine at a pachinko parlor in Fukuoka’s Hakata Ward. (Yoichiro Kodera)

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