Pachinko is a Japanese gaming device. A pachinko machine resembles a vertical pinball machine, but has no flippers and uses a large number of small balls. The player fires balls into the machine, which then cascade down through a dense forest of pins. If the balls go into certain locations, sequences of events are triggered that result in more balls being released; these balls can then be exchanged for prizes. Pachinko machines were originally strictly mechanical, but modern ones have incorporated extensive electronics, becoming similar to video slot machines.
The machines are widespread in establishments called parlors, which feature a number of free slot machines; hence, they operate and look similar to casinos. Modern pachinko machines are highly customizable, keeping enthusiasts continuously entertained. Because gambling for cash is illegal in Japan, balls won cannot be exchanged directly for cash in the parlor; instead the balls are exchanged for tokens, which are then taken outside and exchanged for cash at a place nominally separate from the parlor and possibly run by organized crime.
As an indicator of the popularity of pachinko in Japan, Japanese government estimates of the annual turnover of the pachinko industry are in the region of 29 trillion yen. To put this in perspective, this is about twice the annual turnover of Japan’s automobile industry, and approximately equivalent to the estimated annual turnover of the global narcotics trade.
Pachinko parlors are known for tweaking their machines to maximize their profits without intimidating customers, which means that most machines have different payout settings than what their manufacturers claim. The Japanese police can tolerate such manipulation as long as it happens outside of business hours; generally, those that cause a loss to the player are found in greater numbers.
Resetting of machines every day before opening hours is a feature of all parlors, because of the strict enforcement of closing times implying some players having to give up their machines when they hit a string of jackpots. Those whose machines are in payout mode at this time are allowed to collect their balls for the duration of the payout. Some parlors allow members to hold a particular machine across operating sessions. Timing is another factor in determining how parlors set their machines: holidays, when many people play pachinko, are favorable because many play it for leisure and the parlors are keen to attract them to come back for more. Weekends are unfavorable because the majority of players have only this time to play.
The layout of the different setting machines is a psychological method of attracting players; machines near the entrance are usually set at a high payout rate. When people walk by the parlor and see players at those machines with a large number of balls, they are more inclined to go inside and play the other machines even though they are at lower settings. For this purpose, many parlors employ “sakuras” to sit at these machines and emulate players winning a large number of balls; they are required to return these balls to the parlor free of charge minus their wages.