Watch enough Japanese cinema and you’ll no doubt see some gambling, particularly if you’re watching yakuza movies, but the games involved might seem alien to an outsider’s eye. Japan itself has a strange relationship with gambling: aside from a few specific, seemingly arbitrary exceptions like betting on powerboat racing, gambling is illegal. Historically, gambling is closely associated with Japanese organised criminals, with ‘traditional’ yakuza falling into one of two classes: tekiya, or peddlers, and bakuto, gamblers, though nowadays their criminal enterprises are of course far more broad in scope.
While there are many card, dice, and tile games suitable for gambling on that are popular in Japan, here are three that come up regularly on film: the dice game chou han, Mahjong, and pachinko. If you care to try any of these, digital versions that make following unfamiliar rulesets far easier can be found; in SEGA’s Yakuza series, including the recent Yakuza Zero, playable versions of Mahjong, chou han, oicho kabu, hanafuda games, and many others appear (other games in the series have also featured pachinko or pachislot machines).
Of the three covered here, Mahjong is easily the most well-known and widespread game in the west. According to Metropolis, as of 2010, Mahjong was the most popular tabletop game in Japan. This Japan Times article goes into greater detail, talking about its decline from Bubble era heights to the modern day, but it’s still widely played. Internet TV provider Abema.jp runs a 24-hour Mahjong channel. Originally a Chinese game that works similarly to a card game like poker, players draw tiles and try to build hands such as three or four of a kind, straight runs of sequential numbers, or special combinations of unique tiles.
It’s a fantastically tactile game, with the clattering of its tiles as the ‘deck’ is shuffled between rounds easily recognisable, on film or in real life (fun fact: the Tokyo apartment building I lived in banned playing Mahjong, but it wasn’t clear whether this was to prevent gambling or stop the cacophony of tiles). Special, motorised tables are available that shuffle and prepare the tiles – one can briefly be seen in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift when the villains are playing Mahjong in the backroom of a pachinko parlour.
“In mah-jongg, a player gets 30,000 points in “hanchan,” or a unit of eight games after which four players calculate their points.
The Japan Federation of Mah-jongg Business Association considers ¥50 per 1,000 points to be within socially acceptable levels, Kinoshita said. With that rate, one’s maximum loss in a hanchan is theoretically ¥1,500.” – Japan Times
The above Japan Times article discusses gambling on Mahjong, which is legal under certain limits, but in reality (and especially on film) can go much higher than a ¥1,500 (~£10, $13) loss.
A game of chou han seems to be almost a requisite for any vintage yakuza movie, probably because although the game itself is very simple, it provides an iconic visual: for maximum effect it will consist of a crowd of yakuza, stripped to the waist so no one can be accused of hiding anything in the voluminous sleeves of their kimono, full body tattoos on show, maybe wearing bandage-like sarashi wrapped around their waist. The actual game is almost absurdly simplistic – the dealer simply prepares two dice in a cup or bowl, tips the bowl onto the tatami matting in front of them, and before the dice are uncovered players bet on whether the sum of the two dice will be odd or even. There is a 50% chance of either outcome.
Perhaps because of the straightforward nature of the game, most of the fun in seeing it appear on film is in its almost ritual presentation. Any excitement usually comes from a fight breaking out over the results, or someone being accused of cheating – as happens in Blind Woman’s Curse where the dealer is accused of using weighted dice so that the result is always odd.
There are a handful of sights Western directors love to include in a depiction of modern day Tokyo: overcrowded trains, the Shibuya scramble, and the deafening clamour of a pachinko parlour. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation includes a perfect example of this when Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson pass through a roaring arcade, while Outlaw: Black Dagger features a brief scene in a vintage parlour with retro machines. For a taste of the noise, check out this video from YouTuber For91Days:
A pachinko parlour or arcade comes across like the slots at a Las Vegas casino, an audiovisual assault that is easy shorthand for “this film is set in Japan”. Yet it’s also accurate – pachinko parlours seem to be everywhere. I would spot loose pachinko balls in the gutters as I walked home from work in Ikebukuro. The game itself is basically a kind of meld between a vertical pinball table and a slot machine, with players feeding in small steel balls that ricochet around the pins, bumpers, and flippers controlled by the cabinet itself. The goal is to capture as many balls as possible, preferably by triggering jackpots, which can then be traded in for prizes.
While the comparison to slot machines and other games of chance is clear, winning cash at a pachinko parlour is illegal. Instead, the prizes won can be traded for cash at a nearby, supposedly separate establishment working as a kind of pawn shop – the kind of bureaucratic loophole that seems all too common when discussing the shadier sides of Japan.
“Pachinko is sometimes described as “vertical pinball,” but that’s an insult to pinball.” – David Plotz, Pachinko Nation
For more information on pachinko – and Japanese gambling in general – David Plotz has a fantastic article over on Japan Society. Though the article is a few years old now, he has some startling figures – placing pachinko as larger than the Japanese auto industry, amongst other revelations. Plotz even notes that gambling on kyōtei, Japanese powerboat racing, is his indirect benefactor. The profits from the industry make up a huge part of the philanthropic Nippon Foundation, founded by self-proclaimed “world’s richest fascist”, the late Ryōichi Sasakawa. The department at my own university where I studied Japanese and that sent me to study in Tokyo ten years ago also received funding from the Nippon Foundation, so like Plotz, Sasakawa and the Foundation’s history leave me more than a little conflicted. In any case, it’s a detailed, interesting read, and I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in gambling in Japan beyond how it is depicted on film.