Enter the not-so-secret world of pachinko, a game of chance that’s definitely not pinball.

How much would you wager that gambling is illegal in Japan? If you bet yes, you’d be right. Technically. Gambling for cash is not allowed, but there are actually a variety of ways to get around that rule in the Land of the Rising Sun, the most popular being pachinko (パチンコ).

Pachinko is a game that looks and sounds a bit like pinball, with flashing lights, big noises, and famous celebrities and characters prominently featured in the game. But instead of several larger balls, you play with hundreds of tiny silver balls that look like ball bearings. Pachinko parlours are a bit more like Vegas slot rooms than anything else: think a line of machines gently bathed in cigarette smoke and the dinging sound of balls hitting pins. And instead of leaning over a slanted machine that spits balls into a maze of pins and flippers, pachinko players sit facing a flat game field. Pinball players let loose a set number of balls one at a time; pachinko players can choose how many balls they want to purchase. One-yen balls are the lowest stakes and the most popular choice for beginners, while the higher-stake 4-yen balls are popular with professionals.

Once you’ve settled in, you’ll find a lever that shoots hundreds—or sometimes thousands—of balls onto the playing field. But while the goal in pinball is to keep your ball in play and out of the hole, in pachinko the goal is to shoot the balls out at just the right speed to get them into specific holes, which then trigger the release of a bunch of bonus balls. Those balls are released from the bottom of the machine and are dropped into a plastic bin. Once the bin fills up, you can press the call button and an attendant will dump it into a counting machine, which will then return a slip of paper that indicates how many balls were in the bin (or bins, if you are a die-hard player and have been filling up bins for hours, probably chain-smoking all the while). After playing, take your slip to the prize counter and select from an array of weird prizes, like a cigarette, a CD or a stuffed animal.

This is where the gambling part comes in. You take your prize outside to a secret booth that will give you cash for the item, but you can’t ask the parlour employees how to find the booth. This roundabout form of gambling is Japan’s worst-kept secret, and one of its most popular pastimes. It’s estimated that around 30 million people spend hundreds of billions of yen a year on pachinko.

Learning your pachinko etiquette


Want to learn how to avoid offending your fellow pachinko enthusiasts when you’re at the parlour? Just follow these simple tips:


DO watch your step

You’ll see plenty of loose balls on the floor, since it’s considered bad luck to pick them up. Don’t slip!


Do NOT play two machines at once

Other people may want to play that machine, so don’t be a hog.


DO be an adult

You must be at least 18 to play pachinko, so no sneaking in, kiddos!

Illustrations by Chieko Watanabe