Gambling in Japan
While Japan’s neighbors in China are famous as big lovers of gambling in spite of it being illegal in most of China, many Japanese people also enjoy making a wager. Just like in China, many forms of gambling are prohibited in Japan, but there are some notable exceptions. Four kinds of race-type gamble games, a machine game, and the lottery are all legal types of gambling in Japan. Let us tell you more about the ways to test your luck in Japan!
Gambling on Races
Horse racing (keiba), bicycle racing (keirin), motorboat racing (kyotei or BOAT RACE), and motorcycle racing (auto race), are all legal to bet on with money. There are about 90 stadiums all over Japan for these gambling sports. Horse racing is the most popular gambling game among these four racing sports controlled by the government.
The history of horse race dates back to 1860. Japan had closed the country from the 17th century for about 200 years. Then, when Japan opened its borders and made friendship treaties with the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Russia in 1854, foreigners started living in Japan. It was still during the feudal time, so foreigners couldn’t choose freely where they would live. Foreign settlements were established in some cities, and Yokohama was one of them. It was the foreign residents who held Japan’s first horse race in Yokohama in 1860. Then one year later, a western-style horse race field was constructed. The shogunate had already prohibited gambling during the Edo time, and after 1868 the new Meiji government also prohibited gambling, but an exception was made for horse racing, as it was held based on the idea of extraterritoriality.
Gradually, horse racing fields were constructed in several cities all over Japan, but they were initially not built for gambling. Instead, the fields were was just for the viewing enjoyment of the nobility and rich people and the boom was over by 1900.
Japan experienced two major wars in the early 20th century; the Japanese-Sino War in 1894, and the Japanese-Russo War in 1904. From experience, the Japanese military realized that Japanese horses were inferior to Western horses. There was, however, not enough budget to improve the Japanese horses, so the government decided to hold horse races to raise money in 1905. This was the beginning of horse racing for the Japanese people for gambling purposes. There are 25 horse racing courses in Japan now.
One of the most accessible ways to gamble in Japan is the Takarakuji, or lottery. There are many lottery stands in the streets of Japan, there is pretty much one on every street corner. The lottery is hosted by the local governments to raise money for the local community. The maximum price you can win is 400 million yen (about 4 million USD). The lottery is a bit of a gray area, as it can be regarded as a kind of gamble.
Also, the Sports Promotion Lottery for soccer has started in 2000, with the aim of collecting funds to improve Japan’s environment for sports. It is not only a lottery, as you can buy a ticket on which you can predict the result of a soccer match. But be careful to only use the official lottery for this purpose, as if you bet money on sports privately, you can be arrested.
The first pachinko parlor was opened in 1930 in Nagoya. All pachinko parlors stopped operating during WW2, but they reopened swiftly in 1946. At pachinko’s peak time in the mid-90s, the number of parlors was over 17,600, but the game’s popularity has been decreasing ever since and now there are only about 8,700 parlors left. Younger people don’t like to play pachinko, which may have to do with the fact that it is very noisy and smokey inside all pachinko parlors.
Pachinko looks a bit like a pinball machine. You first buy a bucket full of balls, then pour them in the machine and let them work their way through the machine by controlling a dial. Until about 40 years ago, you needed to hit the ball using a lever by yourself instead of operating the dial. Operating the dial is easier, but it is much easier to lose your money fast because you cannot control the speed of the balls entering the machine.
The goal of the game is to let the balls go into a hole, especially if you do that at the right timing you may win many new balls. These balls can then be exchanged for prizes and tickets, and the tickets can then be exchanged for cash somewhere in a different building to go around the government’s rules against gambling. Because you only receive a prize or a ticket, not money, it is not regarded as gambling. Recently, game makers have introduced elements from anime, manga, and computer games to make the games more attractive for a certain audience.
Pachinko has generated social problems in Japan, as there are many people who are addicted to it and cannot stop playing, often meaning they go into debt. There are unemployed people who get support from the government but spend all money on pachinko because they don’t have anything to do other than playing pachinko during the daytime.
Casinos in Japan
The Integrated Resort Bill was enacted in 2016, which means that Japan can now have casinos. There are governors that don’t want casinos built in their prefectures because they don’t want to get problems commonly associated with casinos like more problem gamblers and the resulting financial issues.
Some governors, however, are willing to develop the integrated resorts including casinos in their prefectures. They see it as a plus, as it can be one of the promotion measures to increase the number of foreign visitors to their cities including MICE (meeting, incentive tour, conference, and exhibition) use. This means that some casinos may open in Japan in the near future.
Your Japan Tour
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