Gambling: Japan’s Forbidden Fruit

Most forms of gambling are prohibited in Japan apart from a few low-stake games such as Pachinko, lotteries, and betting on horse racing. However, while there are no casinos in Japan today, there has been a movement in recent years to consider relaxing this restriction. With the passing of the “IR Improvement Law” in July 2018 and the “Casino Bill (IR Promotion Act)” in December 2016. 

Why has it taken the Japanese so long to consider these changes in legislation, and why are they so against gambling?  To understand this, we need to take a step back and look at the history of gambling in Japan.

History of Gambling in Japan

The Beginning

Gambling was first mentioned in Japan in the 7th Century. Japanese ambassadors to China were taught a dice game called Sugo-Roku (double sixes) similar to backgammon. They introduced it to Japan, and Emperor Tenmu quickly adopted it as a favorite game to enjoy while passing the time. This game is still played today. Later that century, when Empress Jito took over the throne, she outlawed the practice of gambling, declaring that “this is the only evil behavior that our envoys have inherited from China.”

This pattern persisted throughout Japanese history with various Emperors prohibiting and then permitting gambling. Gambling became a common activity throughout the Hein dynasty even though it was still illegal. Betting was highly widespread, and people would wager on anything, including who could write the best poetry, competitive games like Go, and even the weather.

Stricter Regulations

Then, gambling peaked during the Jōkyū era (1219–1222) when wagering on cockfights and horse racing was widespread. Strict legal gaming regulations that carried severe penalties and fines for infractions were put in place. In the end, this initiative failed to outlaw gambling because people kept coming up with inventive ways to play games of chance out of sight of the authorities.

The government tightened its betting and gambling regulations in 1718 and the distinction between moderate and substantial betting was made.  Low-stakes gaming, including lotteries and wagers, was permitted by the government. Some of the games that became popular at this time are kitsune, shishita, bin korogashi, and chobo-ichi.

Playing Cards

The Portuguese introduced playing cards to Japan around this time and they began to gain popularity. One of the most popular card games, Zanmai, was essentially a blackjack variation where the winning number was 19 rather than 21.

Increase in Crime

It was also around this time that the Bakuto, professional gamblers, first emerged. The predecessors of the yakuza crime syndicates, the Bakuto were roving gamblers that operated in Japan from the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century. The destitute, the landless, and the criminals made up the majority of the Bakuto’s membership.

Pachinko Games

Pachinko is Japan’s favorite game to wager on. The best way to sum up the game is a combination of pinball and slot machines, where players must use a combination of skill and chance to succeed. Slots are almost entirely luck-based and include spinning reels which can land on one of many possible winning combinations. To win in pachinko, though, takes more than just luck.

To play pachinko, players buy a bucket of metal ball bearings. At a machine, participants launch balls in hopes of triggering a jackpot. If you win a jackpot, extra balls will fall into your tray, giving you more chances to play and win. Pachinko’s “trick” consists of learning how hard to pull the lever to propel the ball such that it lands in a certain pocket. If you get a ball into the winning pocket, a slot machine will appear and provide you with a certain extra number of balls.

The balls are traded in for tokens, which are subsequently sold at conveniently located businesses for real money. If a pachinko parlor doesn’t hand out cash prizes, it’s not breaking the law or deemed gambling under the Criminal Code.

The first pachinko parlor opened in Nagoya in 1930, and the game quickly gained popularity. The result was a widespread craze for pachinko. Given the game’s meteoric rise to fame, pachinko machines were outlawed when World War II broke out.

Japan now has over 5 million pachinko machines in operation.  The annual revenue generated by Pachinko machines in Japan is believed to be more than $200 billion.

The Final Move

Beginning in the 19th century, Japan made the transition from a closed national foreign policy to one that was more open. This made it possible to introduce Japanese people to casino games with a Western aesthetic. When all forms of gambling were made illegal in 1907, the spread of gambling was stopped. The 1907 ban had a big impact on Western games, especially poker, which was never able to overcome cultural barriers and achieve the level of popularity it has in the West.

The Future Of Gambling In Japan

Although there aren’t any land-based casinos in Japan, efforts are being made to open integrated resorts. If permitted by the government, the Japanese towns of Osaka and Yokohama will each host one of the country’s first casinos. There are increasing signs that the Japanese government would accept new casino projects and allow for the start of construction.

Perhaps after centuries of historical intolerance, Japan will finally allow gambling back into its culture. Only time will tell.

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Mark Meets
Mark Meets
MarkMeets Media is British-based online news magazine covering showbiz, music, tv and movies

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