A Look Inside the Japanese Game that Inspired "Pachinko"

Apple TV+’s latest series “Pachinko” is a historical drama that centers on one woman’s journey through multiple generations. The series is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Min Jin Lee, which tells the story of Sunja, a woman who experiences deep love and significant loss amidst the Japanese annexation of Korea. Sunja makes incredible sacrifices in her lifetime for the betterment of her children, and as she gets older, she reflects on the several obstacles she has overcome in her life.

The book and series name “Pachinko” refers to the popular Japanese game, but what is it exactly? Ahead of the “Pachinko” series premiere on Apple TV+ on March 25, let’s dig into the world of pachinko and what makes it so popular, even today.

What Is Pachinko?

First created as a children’s game in 1920s Japan, pachinko is a cross between pinball, arcade game, and slot machine. In pachinko, the goal is to get as many balls as possible into winning pockets, but like any arcade game, there’s a twist. The playing field is crowded with hundreds of brass pins that obstruct the balls’ path into winning pockets. You can see a pachinko game in action below.

What Are Pachinko Parlors?

Pachinko parlors are essentially arcade-like establishments that are filled with pachinko machines. Some pachinko machines are themed, from popular movies like “Jaws” to hot anime series. Smoking is allowed in most parlors, but according to the BBC, many parlors offer smoke-free areas, and some include translated instructions for tourists visiting Japan.

Gambling is illegal in Japan, but pachinko parlors subvert the ban through a loophole. “Pachinko” author Min Jin Lee told Business Insider that “pachinko parlors use a loophole by having an intermediary between the winning of the balls and then the conversion into cash.” In other words, while parlors are not allowed to exchange players’ balls directly for money, they can exchange them for tokens or a ticket, which players can then exchange for cash at third-party establishments.

How to Play Pachinko?

Playing pachinko is straightforward. First, the machines are typically sorted by price and their winning probability, according to Japan Travel. Each device can have a different price for the balls within it, such as one yen per ball, four yen per ball, and so forth. Picking the right pachinko machine depends on your familiarity and expertise in the game. Upon selecting the right machine, you insert money to play, then push a button to release a set of small metal balls to play with. To win, you must carefully push the play lever on the machine to launch the balls hard and high enough that they will make their way into one of the winning pockets. The more balls you get into winning pockets, the more prizes you can get.

How Popular Are Pachinko Parlors?

The pachinko game originated in the early 20th century as Corinthian Bagatelle, one of the earliest versions of pinball. A version of the game reached Japan in the 1920s and grew in popularity at the time, until the onset of World War II, when machines had to be used for scrap metal, according to Abroad in Japan. After World War II, the game regained popularity as the desire for leisure entertainment was in high demand. As the love for pachinko grew in the 1940s and 50s, parlors were built around the country and, since then, have become a multi-billion dollar industry in Japan.

The game of pachinko and pachinko parlors remain popular in Japan. There are over 10,000 parlors in the country alone, and the game’s market is valued at approximately $200 billion annually, “nearly 30 times the annual gambling revenue of Las Vegas,” as reported by Business Insider. Pachinko is so popular that 1 in 12 people in Japan play the game, according to Japan Today.

Why Did Min Jin Lee Call Her Book “Pachinko”?

Image Source: Apple TV+

The name of “Pachinko” for both the book and series is not a random choice, but rather a metaphor for the unpredictable and sometimes unfair nature of life.

In an interview with Pop Matters, Min Jin Lee said, “When I interviewed all these pachinko parlor owners about how they messed around with the pins every single day to affect the payout, it occurred to me that pachinko is a rigged game… The house is going to win. And yet people still play! I think… that the world is an unfair place, and yet we continue to play, and we continue to show up. We have to.”

Watch the series premiere of “Pachinko” on Apple TV+ on March 25, with new episodes releasing every Friday.

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