What Is Gambling Like In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asked:

I have recently been watching Kakegurui - Compulsive Gambler on Netflix and it has me curious about gambling in Japan. Gambling is in a ton of anime from Samurai Champloo to Kaiji. Mostly I am familiar with the basic odd even dice game as well as pachinko. As far as I can tell gambling is illegal in Japan. The closest I have ever really seen is when I went to Las Vegas there were a ton of international gamblers. How big of a deal is gambling in Japan? Are there really a lot of unusual forms of gambling that never really caught on here in the west?

Gambling is, indeed, illegal in Japan. You cannot find a casino with a big neon sign, you won't find giant rooms filled with Video Poker machines and giant roulette tables, or people playing least, not in the open. Yakuza groups often run underground casinos, with the major local attraction being not poker, but mahjong.

There IS legal gambling to be had in Japan, though. Certain "public sports" are exempted from the gambling ban. Horse racing, bicycle racing, powerboat racing and asphalt motorcycle racing (which they call "auto race") all allow gambling, which is locally regulated. These events are popular in major cities, and you'll see horse racing pop up a lot in anime when it comes to characters that are portrayed as degenerate gamblers. Prefectures and cities also hold official lotteries, much like they do in the West.

Pachinko, of course, is ubiquitous in Japanese cities. Pachinko parlors are everywhere, and are loud, bright, flashy places that really seem a LOT like slot machine rooms in casinos. Individual machines are themed, quite often with classic anime graphics, and if you've never played or seen one, they function like a vertical pinball machine, often with some flashy graphical slot machine component of gameplay. Pachinko is TECHNICALLY not categorized as gambling, since the payout is just prizes like pens, alcohol, electronics... basically an adult-oriented Skee-ball. But it's all just a thinly veiled work-around of the rules: usually there's a store that will exchange those prizes for cash just down the street. Pachinko companies are so prosperous that some of them have bought anime studios.

Gambling smartphone games (some of them headquartered outside of Japan) have popped up too, involving games of chance as simple as rock-paper-scissors (janken). And if you're not looking for a real payout, casino video games have also been popular in Japan since the 8-bit era.

Gambling is extremely popular all over Asia, and tourists (including Japanese ones) often go to Singapore and Macau to take part in the activity. Seeing all of these tourist dollars go to other places, various factions in government have been trying to come up with a way to have legal casinos in Japan while at the same time instituting rules that prevent as many people from falling prey to addition as possible. As of this writing, a bill has been introduced in the Diet that would allow for a limited number to b built as part of a larger entertainment complex. There's a fierce debate going on as to whether the protections would work as planned, and whether such a plan would invite the secret involvement (and enrichment) of yakuza.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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