Pinball wizards cast spell on Japan's parents

Many couples addicted to pachinko are deaf to their children's cries
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The Independent Online
Richard Lloyd Parry Tokyo

Last Thursday, like countless couples all over Japan, Kazuto and Shizue Iwasato took the afternoon off, and put the world on hold with an extended bout of pachinko.

The game, a kind of vertical electronic bagatelle, is familiar to anyone who has walked through a Japanese town, principally for the arcades where it is played - squeaking, clanking, beeping caves, filled with cigarette smoke, and the gaudy neon of the machines themselves.

The spectacle of the tiny steel pachinko balls bouncing off the nails and clattering into the holes is said by aficionados to be profoundly soothing, and players like the Iwasatos spend hours at it, drowning out their worries in a stupor of sound and lights.

Among those troubles was Kazuto and Shizue's two-year-old daughter, whom they had left at home, shut up in the drawer of a bedroom chest.

When they returned more than three hours later, the little girl was unconscious, and by then time the ambulance had taken her to hospital, she was dead. Now 21-year-old Kazuto and his 25-year-old wife have been arrested as the latest in a growing list of pachinko killers. No one seems to know whether it is a new problem, or an old one which is only now being noticed, but last year some 30 young children are believed to have died while their parents were playing pachinko.

One toddler drowned in a drainage canal and another wandered into the path of an oncoming train. Last summer, five-year-old Yurika Oyama was hit by a car and died in the doorway of the pachinko parlour where her mother was playing. Child neglect is only one of the ills associated with the game.

Yesterday, police in Hiroshima liberated three pachinko players who had been kidnapped by gangsters after being caught tampering with a machine.

By the sophisticated standards of modern arcade games, the appeal of pachinko is difficult to understand. The basic game [see box] is about as simple as it was when it was first devised in 1948, but 28 million Japanese - one in every four - played the game in 1995, and spent 26.3 trillion yen (pounds 140bn) between them, or an average of 85,200 yen a year.

The mega-parlours draw crowds of 100 or more before the doors even open at 9am: one man said this weekend that he had got up at 7am and commuted for an hour and a half to be first in the queue for his lucky machine.

The most obvious explanation for pachinko's appeal is that it offers one of the few outlets for the urge to take a flutter. Gambling on Japan's most popular sports, like baseball and sumo, is illegal, and bookies can only operate within strict limits at horse tracks, and more obscure events like cycle and boat racing. The pachinko parlours are barred from awarding cash prizes, but this prohibition is effortlessly circumvented by a delicate charade with which the police, courts and government appear perfectly satisfied.

Instead of dispensing money, pachinko machines vomit up more of the little silver balls which can be swapped for trinkets like key rings or cigarette lighters. Round the corner from every pachinko parlour is a small hole in the wall through which a pair of hands is visible. The winner passes over the token prize, and receives in return a wad of yen notes. Decades ago, this was a covert operation but nowadays it is carried out quite openly.

The murkiest thing of all about pachinko is the ultimate destination of the pachinko trillions. As a business, pachinko makes about as much money in Japan as the car industry, and it is dominated by Korean Japanese, many of them descended from slave labourers shipped over from the former colony during the Second World War.

Most of them are originally from what is now North Korea, and maintain strong links with the hard line government of Pyongyang.

Every year, millions of pounds from the arcades find their way out there. Given its chronic economic difficulties, and almost complete lack of overseas trade, it is entirely possible that North Korea is being kept afloat by the habit of Japanese pachinkoists.

And the game is flourishing. Takings have doubled since the end of the 1980s, and the bursting of Japan's "bubble economy" has, if anything, created more people with time to idle away and anxieties to numb. For a long time, pachinko had a frowzy, solitary image associated with bored salarymen and neglected housewives, but recently big, bright arcades have opened, aimed at students and young women.

The prizes include designer labels like Gucci and Effendi, and couples can now park themselves side by side in specially designed "love seats".

The newest and biggest pachinko parlours in central Tokyo have six floors, including coffee shops and vending machines.

None of them, so far, has a creche.

The nature of the beast

A pachinko machine consists of an upright glass-fronted box studded with metal pins. The player purchases small steel balls which are propelled up into the machine. The aim is to direct these into the right holes. Success is rewarded by a torrent of new balls which can be channelled back into the machine or swapped for prizes and, unofficially, cash. The player operates paddles which can be used to direct balls into winning slots - a recent machine pays out 100,000 yen (pounds 530) if the last ball put into motion falls into just the right hole. But the most important skill is to spot which machines have been programmed in advance by the arcade's managers to pay out