Every morning in suburban Japan, men and women young and old join snaking queues near train stations.

At 10am, doors open and the crowd surges in, fanning out to perch before rows of brightly lit gaming machines.

And so the day begins at some 11,000 pachinko parlours dotting the country’s cities and towns, at almost every turn, especially in areas with high pedestrian traffic like train stations.

“Salarymen go to the pachinko parlour to kill time while waiting for the train at lunchtime,” explains Takumi Okuda, a salesman in his 40s who occasionally tries his luck at pachinko – a hybrid of a slot machine and pinball, named for the sound it makes while in play.

“Housewives go there for thrills and try to earn some extra spending money.”

According to Japan’s National Police Agency, there were some 11,000 pachinko parlours and over 4.5 million pachinko machines in Japan last year – compared with under 200,000 slot machines in one of the world’s gambling paradises, Las Vegas, the United States.

Pachinko parlours accounted for no less than ¥23.3tril (RM888bil), or about 4%, of the country’s gross domestic product in 2015, according to the non-profit Japan Productivity Centre.

Besides pachinko, there is no lack of betting options in Japan – from horse, powerboat, motorcycle, and cycling races to the lottery.

Yet in a country where gambling is so widespread, it took nearly two decades before its Parliament legalised casinos in the form of integrated resorts (IRs) last December.

A separate IR Implementation Bill is expected to be tabled and debated in Parliament in the coming months. The legalisation of casinos has cast a spotlight on the already prevalent problem of gambling addiction. Opinion is split over the potential impact that IRs will have on the problem.

Sachio Ooishi, a 42-year-old recovering pachinko addict, says: “The truth is that addicts are never completely cured. The percentage of gambling addicts may seem to be decreasing, but the number of potential addicts may increase, contrary to studies.

“I can’t be optimistic. I believe crime rates will rise and social security will worsen with a casino in Japan.”

Is it really a problem?

Meanwhile, some think the extent of problem gambling is overblown.

A 2013 study by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare showed that nearly five out of every 100 people in Japan were problem gamblers, making up 5.36 million addicts. This figure is slightly lower than the 5.6 million in 2008.

A study released earlier this year by the same ministry, based on the American Psychiatric Association’s more stringent diagnostic criteria for gambling addiction, put the figure at 2.8 million people, or around 2.7% of the population.

Takayuki Miyake, co-president of addiction rehabilitation service The Oneness Group, says more addicts are seeking help due to an increase in awareness, but the number of gamblers is decreasing.

This is evident in the declining number of pachinko parlours – by some 40% compared with the 1990s – according to official statistics. Spending on public betting has also decreased over the years.

“I think this trend of decreasing number of gamblers will continue as the population ages while young people become less interested in gambling and more interested in free forms of online entertainment and games,” says Miyake.

The emergence of casinos is unlikely to reverse the trend, he adds. “More young people may try their hand at the casino, while shopping or watching a show at the IR, but we expect a minimal impact on gambling addiction figures.”

As it is, the Japanese are no strangers to gambling enticements. TV commercials for horse racing and publicly-operated forms of betting like the lottery are allowed. Racecourses target women by featuring girls’ day out at the races, with desserts and cute souvenirs.

Daycare centre chain Japan Elderly Care Service even offers a “Day Service Las Vegas” in which senior citizens play pachinko, mahjong or card games with credits that can be exchanged for prizes such as towels, between the usual exercise sessions and meals.

The centre claims that clients say they feel more energetic and are more sociable than before.

The privately-run pachinko industry accounted for nearly 70% of gaming revenue in 2013, followed by horse racing at 13% and the lottery at 9%, according to casino-related website Capital and Innovation Japan.

Yet only 12% of Japanese approved of the casino legalisation, while 44% were against it, citing concerns about social security and gambling addiction, a survey by national broadcaster NHK last year showed.

“Current forms of gambling are widely deemed by society as harmless entertainment and amusement since gambling is banned by law,” explains Daichi Ohsaki, founder of the Ohsaki Daichi Institute, formerly known as the Japan Anti-Gambling Organisation.

The penal code outlaws habitual gambling but permits bets for “momentary amusement”.

Pachinko parlours sidestep the law by offering prizes such as cigarettes, gadgets, and tokens that can be exchanged for cash at specialised counters located nearby.

Weighing the odds

What both naysayers and supporters of casinos seem to agree on is that the pachinko-going crowd is highly unlikely to migrate to the casino en masse.

“Pachinko is easily accessible and easy to play, so there is a barrier in migrating to casinos,” says Miyake.

Ohsaki adds: “Some players may want to try out the casino initially, but they are likely to return to pachinko eventually, as they are usually from a lower-income group and pachinko offers much cheaper options, such as one-yen pachinko balls.”

But he warns: “What we should be prepared to see is an increase in gambling problems among high-income earners.”

Still, professional casino gambler Arai Nobuki says Japan was “backward” in not allowing casinos sooner.

“It’s part of becoming global,” says Nobuki, who is in his mid-40s. He has travelled across the world over the past 15 years, making a living out of his casino winnings.

“The potential tax revenue from casinos is ¥5.4bil (RM200mil) a day; think about the economic transfer,” he adds.

Not surprisingly, casino operators worldwide are eyeing the jackpot of Japan’s casino market, estimated at some US$30bil (RM126bil), comparable to Macau’s.

The Japanese Government is drawing up regulations – some modelled after Singapore’s – to curb problem gambling. Measures being mulled include requiring citizens to produce identification to enter casinos, imposing a levy, and limiting the number of visits.

Rocky Katagiri, who works as a high-stakes dealer in Las Vegas and earns around US$100,000 (RM420,000) a year, says he can easily identify problem gamblers.

“When they’re on a losing streak, I’d suggest they leave the table and take a break,” says Katagiri. “I believe with proper regulation and if the grey area of pachinko and other forms of betting also come under scrutiny, the extent of problem gambling in Japan can be controlled.”

However, that may be easier said than done.

Says Hitoshi Tanabe, director of the Hokkaido Mental Health and Welfare Centre: “It’s easy to create an environment that promotes the forming of gambling addictions, but difficult to make one that is conducive to curing it.

“Risks have to be understood and preventative measures and education must be provided.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network