A Gambler’s Guide To Japan Where Gambling is Illegal But Isn’t

by Christian Monson
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Is gambling legal in Japan? The answer is no. But also… yes? 

Japanese gambling laws, which were already full of loopholes, have become increasingly amended and complicated with many exceptions and rules to control the exceptions. For any gamer traveling to the country, knowing the facts about gambling in Japan is essential to a fun but law-abiding time. Otherwise, you may break the law without even knowing it and wind up with a stiff fine—or worse. While the legal options are limited, it is possible to do so in Japan within the confines of the law.

This guide discusses the various aspects of gambling in Japan, from what you can do to what you can’t. Take it seriously, and you’re more likely to enjoy your Japanese gaming experience.

Japanese gambling laws

According to the Japanese penal code, gambling in Japan is against the law. If you get caught gambling, you can face a fine. Habitual gambling or running an illegal casino can result in prison time.

Of course, the government originally passed these laws in 1907. Over the years, there have been changes and exceptions, and people have started movements to legalize gambling.

Illegal gambling in Japan

Like any jurisdiction where gambling is illegal, Japan has plenty of people and organizations that skirt the law in secret.

One of the most infamous examples is the yakuza crime syndicate, also known as gokudō, bōryokudan or ninkyō dantai. This mafia-like organization is involved in many criminal activities, and one of their favorites is illegal gambling. They operate underground casinos where people can play Mahjong and other traditional games.

Recently, the internet has become a haven for illegal gambling as well. Mobile gambling sites provide a way to skirt the law. In fact, rock-paper-scissors is one of the most popular games in this medium, offering increasing cash prizes based on how many times you win in a row. The Japanese police are cracking down on these sites.

Legal exceptions

For avid gamers in Japan, there are a few options. These exceptions are very specific and have a lot of rules regulating them.

Public racing sports

It is legal to bet on certain public races, referred to as kōei kyōgi. There are only four different sports where it’s allowed: horse racing, powerboat racing, bicycle racing and motorcycle racing on asphalt speedways. Local governments regulate various aspects of the gambling like the prize pool. You can get betting tickets for these races at the racetracks themselves or at ticket booths around Japanese cities.

Lottery

When you travel to Japan, you’re guaranteed to see booths selling takarakuji tickets. These are public lotteries sponsored by the governments of the prefectures or cities. You can find the ticket booths everywhere—on the street, in department stores. You can even buy tickets at some ATMs.

Like state lotteries in Western countries, local Japanese governments use the takarakuji to fund public programs. National law stipulates that the prize pool must be less than 50% of the ticket-sale revenue. The rest is for social programs or charities.

Future casinos

For some time, large portions of the Japanese people have been moving for gambling legalization. Many politicians have argued that casinos could boost tourism in the country and decrease scandals like recent ones involving betting on baseball and sumo wrestling. Others, however, have argued that the Japanese people could get addicted to gambling too easily since they aren’t used to it.

Finally, in 2018 the government passed a law that officially allows three casinos in the country. So far, MGM Resorts has won the license for Osaka, but companies are still bidding for Yokohama and Tokyo. 

The government will regulate these casinos very strictly. Japanese people won’t be able to visit the casinos more than three times a week or ten times a month. Plus, they’ll have to pay a ¥6,000 entrance fee. The government hopes these measures will prevent addiction.

Pachinko

Of all the exceptions to the gambling law, pachinko is the most recognizable. It’s impossible to spend time in Japan without seeing the pachinko parlors with their dazzling, dancing arcade lights and jingles and alarms. 

Pachinko is an arcade game kind of like slot machines in the West. They also mix in a little pinball. To play pachinko, you have to rent balls from the parlor. You launch the balls with a spring much like in pinball, and the ball bounces around a playing field filled with pins and bumpers. Unlike pinball, you don’t control flippers at the bottom. Instead, you just have to hope the ball falls into one of the prize holes around the playing field. If it does, you win more balls. If it falls to the bottom without landing in a hole, you lose the ball.

The goal of the game is to get as many balls as possible. You can exchange these balls for prizes, or keihin, within the parlor. Since you don’t technically win any money, it isn’t illegal by Japanese gambling law. 

Most parlors take the loophole one step further. You can exchange the pachinko balls for tokens called tokushu keihin. You can then take the tokens to an exchange center nearby and sell them for cash. The exchange centers are sometimes owned by the parlors themselves or private companies like the Tokyo Union Circulation that specializes in buying the tokushu keihin tokens and selling them back to the parlors.

Pachinko has a long history in Japanese culture, and for the most part, it’s considered Japan’s version of gambling. Still, there are those who oppose its place in Japanese society. A study found that gambling addiction affects around nine percent of men and two percent of women, much higher than that of Western countries. As a result, there are sometimes protests against the parlors and movements to have them shut down.

People also criticize the game’s heavy electricity use. In 2016, the parliament passed a law aimed at limiting the amount of electricity that pachinko parlors can use.

Gambling as a foreigner

Gambling is ostensibly illegal in Japan, and the exceptions that do exist are much more tightly regulated and monitored than many Westerners may be used to. Therefore, any gamblers looking to game in the country should do so with caution.

Even a one-time gambling offense can lead to a heavy fine, so be careful. As a foreigner, pachinko parlors are a fun novelty and a good way to experience Japanese culture that you can be confident is legal if you follow the rules. 

As for other forms of gambling in Japan, it can be difficult to navigate the intricacies and nuances of the law without having a grasp of the language and knowing a lot about the regulations. Unless you have a local friend to show you the ropes, you may want to avoid more complicated betting and stick to pachinko parlors.

It appears that with the new casino permits, gambling is angling to become more widespread in the future. There may come a day that you spend an entire vacation gaming at a Japanese seaside casino resort. In the meantime, you’ll have to pass the time with pachinko balls.

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