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Pachinko ad_Asahi Graf Tokyo Olympics_November 1964
Poster promoting pachinko in the Olympic Village_ from the book “Asahi Graf Tokyo Olympics_November 1964”

When I first came to Japan in 1986, I was struck by the brashness of the pachinko parlor – the martial music blaring, the blast of nicotine rushing through the doors as they opened, accompanied by the high-pitched sound of ball bearings slipping, sliding and colliding with glass, metal pins, and other balls across dozens of machines.

The game known as pachinko is as much a part of 20th century pop culture in Japan as Ishihara Yujiro and Misora Hibari, Godzilla and Astro Boy (鉄腕アトム), and Western-influenced music, fashion and sports.

Like bowling and surfing in Japan, pachinko started in the West, its origins thought to be in the 18th century French game, “Bagatelle”, and then the early 20th century game American adaptation, “Corinth Game”. As further explained in this detailed History of Pachinko, the Corinth Game came to Japan in the 1920s, providing ways for children to win candy or fruit in local shops. Children would call the game “pachi-pachi” as that was the sound they heard as the ball made its way through the playing surface.

After the Second World War, pachinko served society as a means to get access to daily necessities, as well as inexpensive entertainment for adults at a time when Japan fought its way out of the rubble and desperation of a lost war. Here’s how author and Japanologist, Robert Writing described it in his book, “Tokyo Underworld“:

pachinko parlor 1960s
Pachinko Parlor in Japan_circa 1960s

“In the postwar years, the prizes became daily necessities like coffee, canned fruit, sugar, soap, and domestic cigarettes like Golden Bat. Since it cost so little to play and was the essence of simplicity itself, the popularity of pachinko skyrocketed. By 1953, there were over a million machines housed in some 50,000 pachinko parlors, all filled to capacity, day and night. Critics complained the pachinko boom was creating a nation of idiots and that it also increased the crime rate. Indeed, people were so eager to try it, they would literally steal for the money to play.”

So you can see why the picture at the top of the post surprises me – pachinko in the early 1960s was less a shining example of Japanese culture and more a vice to cover up. I wish I could read the poster’s text – I could not good enough resolution to understand what virtues of pachinko the officials were playing up – but I’m sure the allure of the bells and whistles called out to more than a few of the highly competitive Olympians…at least for a try.