Japan’s homegrown pachinko halls would not conjure up “essential business” for most people. Chock full of noise, cigarette fumes, flashing screens and masses of dazed players seated at game machines, the parlors are a form of grey-zone legalized gambling, named for the onomatopoiac sound of the hurtling steel balls in the machines.
The industry is long past its peak, but there are still more than 10,000 pachinko halls across the country netting about $200 billion per year. That’s many times what gambling meccas Las Vegas and Macau rake in, combined.
Given the stakes and the highly addictive nature of pachinko, it’s no wonder many parlors have ignored government requests to close down over coronavirus. CBS News partner network TBS TV, showing video of about 100 customers lined up waiting for opening time at a downtown Tokyo location, estimated that about a third of pachinko halls in the capital are still open.
At a parlor in Osaka, 600 gathered before 10 a.m. one recent morning. Stories abound of out-of-town cars filling the parking lots of parlors in adjoining prefectures, or states, and potentially carrying the virus with them.
The Osaka prefectural government said pachinko parlors were the number-one source of complaints about businesses refusing to comply with urgent requests for non-essential businesses to close.
So authorities have vowed a crackdown. But, unable to order closures under Japan’s constitution, Osaka authorities say they’ll now publicly name and shame pachinko parlors for staying open. Tokyo has suggested it will do the same.
But recalcitrant players and at least one expert in gambling addiction say the intended punitive action could backfire — merely advertising which halls are still open for business.