What is pachinko? Discover Japan's gambling pastime

  • Updated
  • By Max Wright
Pachinko Guide

Gambling is not quite as popular in Japan as is it in the UK or USA. Partly this is due to legislation that means only a few forms of gambling are allowed. Instead of being able to enjoy online bingo or slots sites, Japanese gamblers are limited to just sports betting and lotteries.

Unlike the west, japanese players won't be able to spend any time on online or mobile casino sites either, as these are also illegal. A recent change in the law means Japan will be getting its first casinos in the near future, though. 

Without casinos or gambling, one of the biggest pastimes in Japan is Pachinko, which like bingo is played in dedicated halls across the country. This game of chance is not considered a gambling activity by the Japanese government, but there are loopholes that mean players can still make money by playing. This means there are people in Japan that consider themselves professional pachinko players.

If you’ve never been to Japan then there’s a high chance you’ve never heard of pachinko, so what is this strange game, how do you play it, and how can people make money from it? Read on!

What is Pachinko?

Pachinko has been popular in Japan since the 1940s. The closest recognisable cousin to traditional Japanese Pachinko is the bagetelle board. The balls fall down the board, bouncing on the pins until they are caught in one of the marked sections or they fall to the bottom where they are considered dead.

Bagatelle and pachinko boards have different values depending on where your ball ends up, if you're just playing for fun you can make a note of your score and let someone else try and beat it.

Over the years, pachinko has evolved from what was essentially automated bagatelle to incorporate more elements of modern slot games, like graphics, themes and bonus mini-games. Pachinko is a very unique, loud and dynamic game with bright lights and exciting sounds. There are even pachinko adaptations of popular Japanese video games, like Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid.

How do you play?

Instead of inserting money directly into the machine, players buy buckets of ball bearings at a counter/machine in the pachinko hall. Pachinko balls cost on average 4 yen each, which works out to about 30p per ball. This low cost of entry means that players sometimes buy balls in the hundreds.

To interact with the machine, players must turn a dial that determines the force the balls are propelled at. The dial also acts as a button, which fires one ball to the top of the machine at a time. Pachinko is fast paced so you could fire multiple balls in quick succession if you're trying to get a bonus.

Instead of winning money, players are rewarded for landing balls in the right holes and completing bonus games with prizes of more ball bearings. The ball bearings you earn can extend your gameplay or they can be exchanged for prizes.

Bonus games

Like video slots, different machines have their own themes, designs and visuals. They also have different bonus games. By meeting the game's bonus conditions, you could be met with a slots reel that gives you a chance to win a massive payout of ball bearings.

Some modern pachinko machines have screens in the centre that display videos and text whilst playing, these come into play during the bonus games.

How do players win real money?

Due to Japanese gambling regulations, pachinko players are not able to exchange their pachinko balls for real money. However, like at any seaside arcade in the UK, you can exchange your balls for a variety of prizes.

Some pachinko halls might offer bottles of alcoholic drink, food, gadgets, toys or other prizes in exchange for a certain number of balls. If you're a frequent player you might also want to come back and play at a later date, so pachinko halls give players the option of converting their balls into tickets that can be traded in for prizes, saved up, or cashed in for balls at a later date. 

A loophole in the legislation means that as long as players aren't exchanging their tickets/prizes for real money in the same premises that pachinko is played, they aren't gambling.

This means that there are shops all around japan that exist just to buy pachinko balls and prizes back for real money! These shops are generally set up right nearby Pachinko halls and are frequently owned by the same people too.