Japan might be known for its stunning culture and architecture, epic stories about shoguns and samurais, but there’s one more thing that’s uniquely and closely tied to its culture and people – gambling.
According to historical data, there are records describing gambling in Japan that go far back to the 7th century, long before the country was unified. Today, the most popular gambling game in Japan, Pachinko, amounts to up to 4% of its GDP, a genuinely impressive number.
With it being an ever-present activity in Japan’s society, the country has had a bittersweet relationship with poker and gambling with many ups and downs.
What’s the current state of gambling in Japan, and how has it progressed through the centuries? Let’s take a closer look at the turbulent history of gambling in Japan.
To understand how gambling has helped shape Japanese culture through the centuries, we should first examine how it all started.
The Register of Ancient Things, written around 685, suggests that the then-emperor Temmu played a game called Sugoroku.
According to the same source, the succeeding empress Jito banned the game.
Towards the end of the 8th, gambling became incredibly popular among the general population during the so-called Heian period, even though it was still illegal to gamble.
Betting on cockfights and horse races was rampant, and the society saw a new profession emerge during this period – professional gamblers (bakuto).
The killings and robberies rose, prompting the creation of nine prohibition edicts between 1225 and 1284. These laws were enforced so strictly that they remained even during the samurai era.
In 1718, the authorities expanded on the betting and gambling laws. New laws made a distinction between light and heavy betting.
Starting with the 19th century, Japan switched from the national isolation to a more open foreign policy. This opened the door for the introduction of Western-style casino games to the Japanese people.
The popularization of gambling came to a halt in 1907, when all gambling activities were declared illegal.
The 1907 ban had a significant impact on Western games, most notably poker, which never managed to overcome the cultural differences and become as popular as it is in the West.
Pachinko and Pachislots
Amid strong and harsh gambling regulations, one game managed to emerge as a player-favorite and has been the most popular gambling game in Japan ever since.
After somebody brought a version of the Corinth children’s game into Japan in the 1920s, it was quickly nicknamed pachi-pachi.
This game that involves playing for fruit and sweets symbols quickly became popular among the adult population, adopting a gambling dimension shortly thereafter.
During the following decade, up to 1930, the game evolved into what we today call Pachinko and had become a well-known gambling hobby for many Japanese.
When the first Pachinko room opened in Nagoya in 1930, the game received an even bigger boost in popularity.
During the first few years of the 1930s, Pachinko became the number one pastime in the nation. By 1936, Pachinko parlors were opening left and right. So much so that, during this period, 35 parlors have opened in Kochi alone in just six months.
Leading up to the first years of WW2, the government banned both manufacturing and selling of the game. Despite the ban, the Japanese government didn’t manage to stop the Pachinko craze. Moreover, it has only prompted a popularization of another gambling game – Pachislot.
Set on a three-reel, five pay line layout, Pachislot games led the new wave of gambling in Japan.
According to recent stats, there are currently over 5,125,000 Pachinko and Pachislot games in Japan. This means that there is one game for every 25 citizens in the country, a truly staggering number.
The Legalization of Casinos
In the 21st century, Japan continued its trend of following Western gaming culture. Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a big push to legalize gambling in the country.
Currently, the topic of gambling for real money is still a bit touchy in Japan, and you can check this site to find up to date information on the topic.
However, great strides have been made towards making land-based gambling legal and approachable for all of those of the legal gambling age.
As of 2018, there are three legal gambling licenses in the country, in Osaka, Tokyo, and Yokohama.
In 2020, the government founded the Casino Administration Committee to supervise and oversee all gambling activities in resorts that have obtained legal gambling licenses.
Playing lottery games and betting on public sports events is already legal in the country, and recent government acts show great promise towards including other casino games in the mix.
In particular, Osaka has picked up a lot of attention and was the first to launch the process to introduce casino resorts in its jurisdiction.
This has resulted in five companies (Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts, Melco Resorts, and Genting Singapore) applying for the Osaka license.
A Quick Sum Up
Hopefully, this detailed rundown of Japan’s gambling history has helped you learn more about this exciting topic. Japan has a rich and turbulent gambling history that spans for centuries, with this activity positively representing a significant part of the nation’s cultural heritage.
The influence of gambling has been apparent and significant in many Japanese mainstream media pieces. From gambling and poker movies, including the iconic 1960s film Pale Flower to many anime and TV shows focusing on this activity, gambling takes up a prominent place in the Japanese culture.
What's more important is that Japan doesn't only have a thrilling gambling background but also a promising and exciting future.
With the slow and steady legalization of casino games and betting markets over the years, Japan is opening its doors to Western gaming culture little by little.
Who knows, it might even become a big gambling destination in the following years. One thing’s for sure: there’s a lot to look forward to when talking about the Japanese gambling industry.