Small steel balls pay for a big bomb: Japan is worried that cash from pinball parlours is going to N Korea, writes Terry McCarthy in Tokyo

LITTLE steel balls, 11mm across and weighing 5.5g, are at the root of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. Yesterday the Independent bureau in Tokyo, in the full light of day and doing nothing against the law, acquired several thousand of these balls - for 100 yen (63p).

This transaction was not performed in a private office with some shady scientific middleman flogging dual-purpose technology. It was carried out in a pachinko parlour - one of 18,000 such parlours around Japan. Distantly related to pinball machines in the West, pachinko is a national passion in Japan, taking in up to pounds 125bn a year, much of which is never declared to the tax authorities.

But while the government up to now has turned a blind eye to the activities of pachinko parlours, which operate on the fringes of anti-gambling laws, the growing concern over North Korea's nuclear ambitions has made internal security agencies take a new look at the sport that by some accounts attracts some 30 million Japanese - a quarter of the population.

The reason is that up to a third of all the pachinko parlours in the country are controlled by ethnic Koreans with links to North Korea - descendants of slave labourers brought to Japan before and during the last war. And much of the pounds 375m-pounds 500m that Koreans in Japan remit to North Korea in foreign currency every year is thought to come from pachinko. Since pachinko does not sell any tangible goods, the industry's accounts are impossible to check accurately, giving ample opportunity for North Korean sympathisers to hide substantial sums for transfer to Pyongyang. This foreign currency - often channelled through dummy companies in Macau - is vital for North Korea's acquisition of weapons technology from overseas.

Japan knows that if the current peace initiative between the two Koreas, brokered last month by former US President Jimmy Carter, does not work, then the United Nations is likely to push for economic sanctions against North Korea for its failure to comply with international nuclear inspection requirements. One of the elements in such sanctions would be putting an end to the foreign currency remittances to North Korea from Japan. The tax inspectors last month began checks on post-office accounts in Nagoya set up by pachinko parlour owners.

The players in New Aoi pachinko parlour, besides Kanda station in central Tokyo, yesterday seemed totally oblivious to the North Korean nuclear threat, as they poured money into pachinko machines. But all stood up and crowded around as Chika Miyatake, who works for the Independent in Tokyo, put a mere 100 yen worth of steel balls into a machine on a whim, and hit the jackpot.

First introduced to Japan in 1924 as a variation of a primitive American pinball game, 'Corinthian Game', pachinko quickly took root. It was named after the onomatopeic term pachi-pachi which denotes the crackling sound of the balls hitting the nails on their way down the board.

Gambling is against the law in Japan, except for a few highly regulated sports such as boat-racing or horse-racing. Technically a pachinko win entitles the player to a choice of prizes, but in fact most of these prizes are redeemable for cash at a small, anonymous window somewhere close to the pachinko parlour. The 100 yen had won 6,000 yen (pounds 37.50) in just five minutes. That at least was 6,000 yen that Kim Il Sung would not get his hands on.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Supporting role: at the Supreme Court, Rhodes was accompanied by a famous friend, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch
booksPianist James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to stop the injunction of his memoirs
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
filmDheepan, film review
Sport
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool
sport
News
peopleComedian star of Ed Sullivan Show was mother to Ben Stiller
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?