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Gambling is one of the oldest leisure activities in human history, from dicing in the streets of Greece and Rome, to card games in China.
However one country where you haven’t been able to gamble in the past hundred years is Japan. At least, that’s the international perception, but it’s not entirely true.
Gambling has been a taboo subject in Japanese society, and since 1907 most forms of gambling, including casinos, have indeed been illegal. However there are many forms of legal gambling within Japan, including Pachinko, the Lottery, and certain types of sports betting.
With the realization of just how big international casino tourism is (hello Macau tourism dollars), and with COVID moving culture to online entertainment, Japan may just be starting to embrace changes to their century-old gaming laws.
Here’s an introduction to Japanese gambling culture.
An Introduction to Japanese Gambling Culture
Gambling History in Japan
Japan is not known for casinos because they were banned by the Criminal Code at the start of the 20th century. This made casino gaming including slots and table games like poker all illegal, in an effort to prevent addiction.
Exceptions include the lottery, pachinko, and certain sports betting; it’s legal to bet on horse racing, bicycle racing, powerboat racing, motorbike racing and soccer (as long as this is operated by the Government).
The lottery is also run by the Government, though don’t expect to win the whole pot. Japanese law around lottery means that the entire prize pool for any given lottery is to be less than 50% of total sales, with the rest going to local government organizations and charities.
While casinos were banned within Japan, a unique form of gambling culture emerged in it’s place, and more than “nearly half of all leisure time in Japan” is spent in pachinko parlors (more on this below).
People have started many movements to legalize gambling in Japan throughout the years, and the laws are slowly starting to change.
In 2016 and 2018, the Japanese Government passed the Integrated Resort (“IR”) Promotion Law, and the IR Implementation Law which will legalize land based casinos for licensed businesses.
While Japan hasn’t seen it’s first casinos yet, the expectation is that they’ll be ready to welcome those attractive tourist dollars in 2025 when Osaka hosts the World Expo.
Online casinos in Japan have been gaining popularity especially since COVID-19, and while these are also illegal in Japan, players use offshore online casinos with servers hosted in other countries.
Culture of Pachinko Parlors
Pachinko is the closest you’ll get to casinos in Japan; a pinball-like slot machine game, with which Japan is obsessed. There are dedicated pachinko parlors all over the country, and in 2018 Japan spent $200 billion in these parlors.
Parlors are more like ‘arcades’ than casinos, and get around the Criminal Code because they don’t pay you cash when you win. Instead, you win a voucher which you can use to redeem for prizes within the premises.
As a traveler, you’re probably not going to be gambling big within one of these premises for that reason, however part of the culture in Japan is that players will then exchange their balls for tokens, which they then sell at a nearby shop for cash.
As long as the pachinko parlor doesn’t pay out cash, it’s not against the Criminal Code, and not considered gambling.
While pachinko has been popular in Japan for more than 100 years, the industry’s revenue is actually falling, down nearly half from its peak, with newer generations turning to other pursuits like smartphone games and online gambling.
Image credit: IQRemix (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr
Offshore Online Gambling
Online gambling is illegal within Japan, though players easily get around this by using offshore online casinos with servers hosted in other countries.
And it’s becoming quite popular within Japan.
The Japanese love to play slot games, which is why you see pachinko parlors around every corner, though in our modern era many have now turned to online casinos, especially since the pandemic hit.
Mobile gaming sites are a very easy way for locals to get around the laws, and rock-paper-scissors has become one of the most popular online casino games in the country.
By accessing offshore online casinos, the Japanese still enjoy online slot games, roulette, live casinos, table games, and much more without defying the laws.
The Emergence Of Integrated Resorts
Casinos may have not had a place in Japan over the past hundred years, but they’re set to become a big part of Japanese tourism culture going forward, with the emergence of Integrated Resorts.
Integrated resorts are a tourist resort which includes a hotel / casino, swimming pools, entertainment shows, shopping arena, fine dining, theme parks, and much more within one roof.
The legislation for these resorts was passed in 2016 and 2018 respectively, and the first integrated resorts look set to open in time for the 2025 Osaka World Expo 2025.
So why, after 100 + years would Japan change it’s laws?
The main argument in favor of land based casinos has been the boost in tourism dollars it could bring (in 2019 gambling in Macau raked in $37.1 billion in gaming revenue to $6.5 billion on the Las Vegas Strip).
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that casino-centered resorts “will help stimulate regional economies and eventually lead to growth of the overall Japanese economy”.
The argument against has been that it could lead to addiction (as Japanese people aren’t used to gambling), and organized crime, and the law is actually highly unpopular among Japanese society.
Regardless, MGM Resorts is set to launch the first IR in Osaka, likely by 2025, and the Government will genuinely focus on responsible gambling, committing to some of the world’s strictest regulations, including limiting locals to a maximum ten visits a month, and imposing a local entrance fee (foreigners entry will be free).
Gambling in Japan as a Tourist
The bottom line is that yes, gambling in Japan has been illegal, and is still very heavily regulated, but the laws to date have been full of loopholes, and the ban on casinos is easing up into the future.
As a tourist, you need to be aware that the laws around gambling are stricter here than most other countries you’ve visited, so it’s important to fully understand the laws.
Pachinko parlors are on almost every corner and are a great way to experience Japanese gambling culture in a way that you know is within the law. Just don’t expect to win any cash!
In the future, you may be able to visit an actual casino resort.
Image credit: azkin (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr