Saturday, July 09, 2005

Hope for Tokyo

The lack of any apparent casino-type gambling in Japan or anywhere nearby has often weighed on me. When I lived in the San Jose area, it was easy enough to drive for several hours up to Reno, or catch a cheap flight to Vegas for the weekend. There were even card rooms locally, like Bay 101, but I never really played there. I went in once or twice and looked around but did not like the rules. At that point I played mostly blackjack, and while they had it there, I remember the rules being more hostile to the player and I think there was an hourly fee for playing or something like that. For someone used to Vegas, this was a real turnoff and I never sat down there.

Now I would probably push someone in front of a commuter train if we could get a real money card room in Tokyo to play poker at. Gambling in Japan is illegal, though they do have certain exceptions. Pachinko is the best known. I've tried it, and it is not for me. Sit there in the pachinko parlor in a raging cacophony of steel ball bearings bouncing off metal pins, amplified with machine generated beeps and snatches of music and the occasional siren. Put in 5000yen or so (around $50) into a machine and it deposits a double handful of ballbearings into the hopper. This amount looks pitifully small when you look around at the winners in your row, with several huge trays of ballbearings stacked up in the aisles near them. Then you adjust a dial at the bottom right of the machine to start firing the ball bearings up to the top of the machine, pinball style, and they fall downwards, bouncing this way and that between the steel pins. Turning the dial either way will adjust the speed that the ball bearings launch at, so when you find a spot that seems to send the highest percentage of your ballbearings falling closest to the goal inlet, you stop and FOR GOD'S SAKE DON'T MOVE YOUR HAND A MILLIMETER! Then you wait, frozen immobile, as your remaining ballbearings are launched automatically, one after the other, bouncing downward and hopefully into the goal inlet, which earns you.... more ballbearings, dumped into your hopper! If you're good, this can go on for hours. If you're just some slob like me, $20 worth will last you about five minutes. Like I said, the game is not for me.

It's gambling because you spend money to win ballbearings that have no cash value, then use those to play and hopefully win lots more ballbearings, which you can turn in for various prizes. Stuffed animals, cds, cartons of cigarettes, etc. Of course, if you really wanted CASH back for your pachinko play, you can take those prizes across the street to a little booth (not run by the same company as the pachinko parlor! Oh no, we swear!) that will buy them off of you for cash. Presumably the booth then sells them back to the pachinko parlor.

Betting on horse racing is also very popular among some Japanese. As well as other races - auto, motorcycle, bicycle, speedboat, etc.

But for casino and card games, you're pretty much out of luck. Macau, near Hong Kong, has some nice casinos now I hear, but it's only slightly closer and less expensive than flying to Vegas. I have also heard that there are some casinos in the Phillipines, too. But how many international flights do you want to make in a year to satisfy your gambling urges?

Then I noticed the following in an email newsletter about business in Japan that I subscribe to. (The whole article is available here.)

Now, a Daishodai (Osaka University of Commerce) professor, Ichiro Tanioka, has gone on record as saying that he thinks Japan will become home to at least ten new casinos over the coming years, and that it is just a matter of time before they start getting licences. Tanioka is an international expert on the subject of gambling and crime, and in 2002 did a research project for the ruling LDP about gambling here. Given that Ishihara championed and subsequently had to give up a bid to get a casino licence for Tokyo in 2003, no doubt Tanioka's research played a contributing role in the Justice Ministry's vehement objections to decriminalizing gambling.

Tanioka's research is quite interesting. He found that illicit gambling and particularly underground casinos are alive and well in this country. He told a conference recently that there are probably about 200,000 illegal casinos, apparently called shanti's, and that they generate about JPY1.1trn (US$10bn) in takings a year.

Legalized casinos in Japan! That would be great! But what's this about underground casinos?! This sounds intriguing as well. I kind of doubt that they will let foreigners in, and doubt as well that they play poker there. I would guess that slot machines, craps, and blackjack would be more common. But I could live with that as well.

I'll see if I can find one of these things and check it out.


dave g said...

actually it wouldn't be unusual for Japan to open a casino for foreigners only. i know there about a dozen such in S. Korea. not certain but the casinos in the PI may be also foreigner only.

be surprised if they spread hold'em though

James said...

They mention in the article about casinos in South Korea but I know nothing about them. What are they like? Korea is a lot closer than Macau and cheap to get to.

dave g said...

i could only tell you what google could. i became aware of their existence when i was met at kimpo airport by a friend and i suggested adjourning to the casino advertised a few feet away and he explained why he couldn't enter.

from my time in taiwan i know the PI casinos cater to taiwanese and i'm sure the s korean casinos cater to they and japanese, which would lead me to think BJ and baccarat but not poker would be popular.

what's your backstory? i spent 4 years in japan as a computer programmer just after univeristy and 4 years in taiwan a little later in life and have fond memories so i hope you're enjoying yourself.

Sam Ward said...

None of the casinos in Macau have poker. I was there 2 months ago and even the Sands doesn't have it.

James said...

Sam and Dave -

(I had to say it, come on...)

Thanks for the comments, and sorry for my extremely late response.

No poker in Macau, eh? I was afraid of that, but not terribly surprised. But considering that it's only a little longer/farther to fly to Las Vegas from here, I wasn't likely to go to Macau anyhow unless I had some other pressing reason. Thanks for the confirmation, though. I was considering calling up the Sands Macau and asking.

As for my backstory, I got interested in the Japanese language in university and eventually made it my major instead of CS. I took a year off of uni and spent a very exciting time in Tokyo as a starving student and wetback dishwasher. I went home, finished school, worked in IT for several years and built up my funds, then decided to move back to Tokyo. Been here for 8 years now, still working in IT, and still find it to be a great, international, exciting city.