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Perils and Profits of Pachinko Passion

Japan's love for pinball fuels revenue that tops the nation's worldwide auto sales. But it has also created 'pachinkoholics' and a plague of social problems.


TOKYO — Serene amid blaring music and the roar of steel balls clattering through hundreds of upright pinball machines, college student Aiko Takano sat happily with her boyfriend, licking a lollipop and losing money.

Takano, 19, was enjoying a Dutch-treat date at an upscale pinball parlor in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district, and her losses neither surprised nor bothered her.

She and her boyfriend play pachinko--Japanese-style pinball--about twice a week, she said, and lose about $800 a month. Her share eats up all she earns from a part-time job as a drugstore cashier, but she keeps coming.

New players like Takano--and seasoned addicts playing for rising stakes--have triggered the industry's explosive growth in the last few years, despite Japan's worst recession since World War II.

Gross revenue has doubled since the late 1980s, according to estimates by both the government and private analysts. It has hit $275 billion a year--more than the worldwide sales of Japan's auto industry. After winnings are returned to players through a scheme exploiting loopholes in Japan's anti-gambling laws, the industry's take is about $36 billion.

In crowded cities short of recreation facilities and in country towns that may not even have a movie theater, the game offers welcome entertainment.

Its machines feature flashing lights, clanging bells and gaudy plastic flowers that open up with lucky hits to catch balls, or spinning rows of numbers that spit out winners, slot-machine style.

The game provides jobs for 320,000, including the likes of released criminals who cannot easily get work elsewhere. For most players, pachinko is a harmless pleasure that provides emotional release from stressful lives.

But even as pachinko has assumed a heavyweight role in Japan's economy, a backlash of criticism has erupted against its negative social impacts: devastated family finances, broken marriages and highly publicized cases of unattended children dying from accidents or in the heat of parked cars while their mothers played pinball.

Between April 1995 and June 1996, according to a survey by the mass-circulation newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, 30 children died while parents played pachinko. They included several who were hit by vehicles in parlor parking lots and an unwatched boy who fell into a water-filled ditch.

The word "pachinkoholism" has been coined to describe the game's addicts. Among the worst: a construction worker burdened by pachinko debts who robbed a Tokyo post office, then held a 2-year-old boy hostage for more than a day before surrendering to police and blaming his actions on the game.

Ironically, pachinko's transformation from a small-stakes pastime into a serious form of gambling--the key to its huge expansion--was triggered largely by a botched attempt by authorities to exert greater control over the business.

A prominent fixture of Japanese society since shortly after World War II, the parlors long were viewed as unsavory, smoke-filled hangouts run by people who might have gangster connections. They were frequented mainly by harried middle-aged men who escaped their frustrations through the mesmerizing machines.

Pachinko still provides emotional release for "salarymen," or workers at corporate offices, but it also increasingly draws homemakers and young couples.

In their bid to draw more women, many parlors put in love seats for couples and marked nonsmoking areas, a rarity in public buildings in Japan.

Aid for North Korea

The industry has long been notorious for tax evasion, gangster ties and the funneling of hard currency to the isolated and unpredictable Communist state of North Korea.

About 70% of parlors are owned by ethnic Koreans, including many who were born in Japan but retain South Korean or North Korean citizenship. Because Koreans in Japan have long faced discrimination in getting mainstream jobs, many entered businesses such as pachinko that were frowned on by society. Some send money to relatives in North Korea.

Estimates of annual remittances vary wildly--from about $100 million to several billions of dollars.

Many observers suspect that some of these funds flowed into North Korea's nuclear weapons effort until that program was put on hold by a 1994 Washington-Pyongyang agreement.

Police launched their attempted crackdown a few years ago by offering parlor owners an implicit trade: permission to install higher-stakes machines in return for accepting the stricter financial controls of a system in which customers buy magnetic cards from an automatic dispenser, then insert them into machines to play.

These cards have proved a fiasco because of rampant forgery. But the money to be won or lost in a few hours has jumped dramatically.

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