Gambling in Japanese Cinema

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).

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