Pachinko parlors pulling in pensioners

November 9th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Has anybody seen grandpa?

Has anybody seen grandpa?

The pinball pastime known as pachinko reached its peak of popularity in 1995, when the industry raked in almost ¥30 trillion. Since then it’s been all downhill, owing mainly to population shrinkage and the attendant loss of disposable income. However, the biggest blow to pachinko revenues came in 2007 with stricter regulations for slot machines (or “pachislot“), which were a little too much like gambling as far as the National Police Agency was concerned. This may be a matter of splitting hairs since standard pachinko is also a form of gambling that can be quite addictive, but in any case more and more pachinko parlors have gone out of business in the three years since. There are now about 12,600 parlors throughout Japan, 2,000 less than there were in 2007 and 30 percent less than there were in 1995.

Slot machines were more popular among younger pachinko enthusiasts, and rather than try to reclaim what will likely be a dwindling demographic, the industry has gone in the opposite direction. Since 2008 pachinko parlors have targeted the elderly, with surprising success. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of pachinko users over the age of 60 grew from about 2 million to 3 million; but in the subsequent two years the number jumped to 4.3 million.

According to an article in the Asahi Shimbun, attracting pensioners to pachinko parlors isn’t really that hard. One of the newspaper’s reporters went to a parlor in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward where he encountered an 79-year-old woman who had just come straight from the bank with ¥20,000 on cash. Some people might be alarmed, since the woman only receives ¥110,000 a month in national pension payments, but she had her reasons: “I have nothing to do. I spend my money here and see people I know.”

One of the ways pachinko parlors attract seniors is by diminishing the gambling component. Elderly people, especially those living in cities where they tend to reside in apartments, are bored, and pachinko is a relatively painless way to kill time. You just sit there and watch the balls go round and round. Playing regular pachinko, a player can go through ¥20,000 relatively quickly, but a survey by an industry magazine has found that about 60 percent of pachinko parlors now offer “¥1 pachinko,” meaning that each pachinko ball only costs ¥1, about one-fourth the cost of a standard pachinko ball. Of course, the odds are lower with ¥1 balls, meaning that potential winnings are much lower. But since a player can buy more ¥1 balls with his money, he can play longer, theoretically up to four times longer.

Seniors, who have more disposable income than younger people, now account for 25 percent of all pachinko users, and on the 15th of every odd-numbered month the number of people who visit pachinko parlors increases between 20 and 30 percent. That’s the day bimonthly pension payments are deposited into accounts.

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