What are pachinko and J-pop?
Simply put, pachinko is a game that looks a lot like pinball, but with a Las Vegas, pool-hall twist. So-called “pachinko parlors” pack hundreds of machines into the smallest possible space. Each machine is a little different, but play is pretty much the same for all of them. (See “how to play pachinko” below).
J-pop is a very eclectic music form that has roots in the early rock groups of the 1960s, especially the Beatles and Beach Boys. Other influence strains found in J-pop include soft-rock, alternative, club pop, and synthesizer rock. In practice, it’s mainly the combination of upbeat music sung in Japanese but with lots and lots of English and pseudo-English words.
The J-pop “wars”
Lovers of authentic Japanese rock and traditional culture in general despise J-pop for obvious reasons, but particularly because much of it sounds amateurish and unprofessional. In spite of this opposition, J-pop is a financial powerhouse in Japan and nearby Asian nations, with some of the area’s biggest celebrities having risen through J-pop’s ranks.
J-pop and pachinko have at least one thing in common: they are quintessentially Japanese in origin and practice. Korea, China and Malaysia have their own versions of each, but it all started on the mean streets of Tokyo and Osaka, Japan’s cultural epicenters.
Las Vegas in Japan?
Ironically, many pachinko parlors play loud J-pop music in the background as players work the machines in hopes of a big payoff. There’s something very Las Vegas about both J-pop and pachinko. Maybe it’s the nondescript noise that characterizes both; or the glitzy, show-biz veneer covering not-very-much underneath. Whatever the case may be, there is no molecule of Japanese society more bonded to the Las Vegas lifestyle as a noisy, J-pop infested pachinko parlor in downtown Tokyo.
Pachinko is not “gambling” (wink, wink)
A short walk down any big-city street in Japan is a good way to see at least half a dozen pachinko parlors, each one more glittery, buzzing, and noisy than the last. There are signs in various languages noting that the game is not gambling, and in fact no money is awarded to winners. Technically, that’s true; no money is awarded to winners while they are at the pachinko parlor.
But, after trading their metallic pellets for junky prizes at the counter, players can then wander across the street and exchange their merchandise for cold, hard cash. So, defacto anyway, pachinko amounts to gambling, regardless of what the signs say, or in what language they say it.
How to play pachinko
For those venturesome visitors who wish to play, here’s a quickie tutorial:
Bring headphones or earplugs; it gets super loud in pachinko halls.
- Don’t expect to be served a warm cup of matcha tea by a friendly employee. You’re pretty much on your own in the place, and 99 percent of your fellow players are completely absorbed in their games.
- Buy a pre-paid card or use cash and coins to begin play.
- Insert cash, coin or card into the machine of your choice, provided you can find a vacant seat.
- You’ll be prompted to choose how many balls/pellets to purchase. Go slow at first until you get the hang of the game. Purchase the minimum number of pellets that your machine will allow.
- Pachinko machines operate mostly on gravity, which is why, unlike traditional pinball machines, they are vertically set rather than horizontally positioned. Playing is like watching metal pellets fall from the top of a weird maze, through a series of pegs, and down toward the bottom of the machine.
- Here’s a really cool part, maybe the coolest part of pachinko: You will now be prompted to choose the “launching speed” of your metallic pellets, which are automatically shot out by the machine (not at you, but within the game board’s enclosed surface). Note that a few older machines in smaller cities might still use the old “manual” method of launching, in which the player has to pull a lever to send each pellet onto the game board.
- Launch the balls into the game board. They will come out one by one, and fall through a series of pegs.
- Most of the balls will land in the bottom and are thus lost forever (until you buy more). A few lucky pellets will land in various “winning” pockets along their downward trajectory. These winners will earn you… more pellets!
- At any time, you can cash-out your pellets for merchandise at the front of the pachinko hall. Hang onto these seemingly worthless prizes (matches, plastic bags, cheap key chains); they are redeemable for cash at a nearby pachinko kiosk. By not paying cash to winners at the parlor, owners get around Japan’s not-very-strict gambling laws.
- If a machine shows three matching pictures in its “slot machine” area up top, that means you are now in “payout mode”; and any ball that lands in a designated “payout gate” at the bottom of the machine is yours to keep and is worth many times its face value (what you paid for it at the beginning).
- Keep in mind that pachinko is purely a game of chance and there are no skills at launching or anything else which will help a player win. In that respect, pachinko is quite similar to bingo or keno.
- Good advice for first-time visitors to Japan is this: visit a pachinko parlor. Play for about a half-hour and then leave. The house advantage is astronomically high and more than 99 percent of players lose money. But, it’s part of modern Japan that is not to be missed.
Japan’s gifts to the world
The Japanese have given many gifts to the world, including the beautiful art of flower arranging, Kabuki theater, the Noh drama genre, matcha tea and tea ceremony, Zen Buddhism, and robotic science to name just a few. Pachinko, for those not given to addictive gambling, is relatively harmless but no great art form.
As for J-pop, it’s more like very sweet bubble gum that loses its flavor after a few minutes: delicious briefly, and then pretty blah. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan without the good and the bad, the artful and the dull, the epic and the transitory. If Zen Buddhism teaches any lesson, it is the acceptance of what is, without judgment. In that spirit, it becomes much easier to view both pachinko and J-pop as essential to the Japanese cultural landscape.