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Is Japan’s Love for Pachinko Fuelling Gambling Addiction?

Japan’s love of pachinko is no secret, but the role it plays in fuelling gambling addiction is often overlooked. As the country prepares to legalise casinos, many Japanese people are asking whether a permissive stance on gambling is really what the country needs.

Pachinko machines have become a fixture of modern-day Japanese society. Similar to pinball, pachinko is a self-contained, arcade-style game that sees players firing little silver balls through a gauntlet of moving obstacles, flashing lights and digital displays. But unlike pinball, pachinko often rewards players in cash.

For that reason, pachinko is often likened to a cross between pinball and a slot machine. And some say it’s fuelling a national epidemic of gambling addiction.

But Japan’s national fervour for pachinko goes well behind the enthusiasm seen in other countries for pinball or even slot machines. The National Police Agency estimates that there are 11,000 pachinko parlours around Japan, with upwards of 4.5 million machines in play. They’re commonly found in high-traffic areas, such as near train stations. Commuters waiting for a train may stop into a parlour for a few minutes, drop a few coins in a machine and – if they’re lucky – win some of their money back.

The game may be a low-stakes form of gambling, but the revenue generated through these parlours is staggering. Pachinko generates JPY 30 trillion every year (more than USD 273 billion), which – as The Guardian points out – is more than the combined revenue of Japan’s top five carmakers.

Low-stakes gambling is big business in Japan – even if it’s technically illegal. And all of this off-the-books gambling could be contributing to major public health issues.

Acknowledging the Reality of Japan’s Gambling Addiction Problem

Just how many people struggle with gambling addiction in Japan? The answer – according to the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry – is uncomfortably high. The ministry’s figures suggest that well over 5 million Japanese adults are compulsive gamblers. That’s nearly 5 per cent of the population – which is makes Japan’s gambling addiction rate five times higher than in more other countries.

Many experts believe that the widespread availability of pachinko parlours is at least partially to blame for Japan’s rampant rate of gambling addiction. These parlours are ubiquitous, and there’s very little oversight in place to encourage people to play responsibly or curtail their losses.

Now there are plans to relax the country’s anti-gambling laws by legalising casinos. This is a move that some fear could see the already-high addiction rate climb even higher.

Will Legalising Casinos Make Gambling Addiction Worse in Japan?

Culturally, it appears as if Japan is of two minds regarding gambling. Strict anti-gambling laws have been on the books for decades. Games resulting in direct cash winnings are illegal, so casinos were out of the question. But pachinko parlours side-stepped this issue by paying out in tokens, gadgets and even packs of cigarettes that could be traded off-site for cash.

Historically, other forms of gambling have also been popular in Japan. Betting is permitted at a wide range of racing competitions – horse, motorcycle, bicycle and powerboat, to name a few. There’s also an extremely popular national lottery.  All of these are permitted through legal loopholes and a cultural willingness to overlook less ‘vulgar’ forms of gambling – those that don’t see cash changing hands directly.

The fact that casinos were illegal for so long may have made it easier for Japanese society to ignore the reality of gambling addiction. But now as the country is legalising casinos in what are being called ‘integrated resorts’, more people are talking about the potential for gambling addiction and what this means for Japanese society.

Japan’s parliament officially legalised casinos last December, and there’s plenty of concern around the country that this may be a step in the wrong direction for Japan. In a country where betting on pachinko alone accounts for roughly 4 per cent of the gross national GDP, one can’t help but wonder if legalising the addition of casinos is going to exacerbate an already well-developed compulsive gambling problem.

Compulsive Gambling: More Than a Harmless Pastime

Japan’s love affair with pachinko illustrates how something that appears to be a harmless leisure activity can escalate to an addictive behaviour when the symptoms are ignored. Whether the legalisation of casinos will lead to higher rates of gambling addiction remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say that those who already have a problem with gambling will now have access to even more ways to act out addictively.

Gambling addiction is a real affliction that has finally received mainstream recognition in the DSM-5 – the go-to manual for diagnosing mental health disorders. If you’ve tried without success to cut back or stop gambling altogether, then it could be that you suffer from a gambling addiction. The good news is that help is available, and there are rehab clinics that specialise in treating process addictions like gambling.

If you’re struggling with any kind of addiction in the Asia-Pacific region, we can help you find a treatment centre near you. Contact us today for a confidential, no-obligation consultation.

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