Gambling Addiction in the Land of Pachinko


Gambling in Japan has long been as easy as stepping into the country’s ubiquitous pachinko parlors. Wagering is set to expand, though, after the government recently passed new legislation authorizing integrated resorts, including full-fledged casino complexes. An author, activist, and recovering gambling addict calls out the nation’s lack of awareness and lagging efforts to address the life-destroying effects of gambling addiction.

A Widespread Issue

Gambling is pervasive in Japan. Pachinko and slot machine parlors dot the landscape, and prodigious numbers of publicly operated horse, boat, and bicycle racing venues offer onsite and remote betting. The spread of smartphones, too, has made it possible for people to gamble online anytime and anywhere.

According to a 2017 survey by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, 3.6% of Japanese adults—some 3.2 million people—are thought to suffer gambling addiction at some point in their life. This is startlingly high compared to rates in other industrialized nations like France and the Netherlands, where it is 1.2% and 1.9%, respectively.

The survey found that over the previous year, 0.8% of Japanese, some 700,000 people, exhibited behavior consistent with gambling addiction, and that addicts on average spent ¥58,000 a month on their affliction. It also named pachinko and slot machines as the most popular forms of wagering.

In December 2016, the Japanese Diet passed integrated resort promotion legislation, the so-called casino law, focusing much-needed public attention on the long-time problem of gambling addiction. Surprisingly, though, the bill was not accompanied by counter measures intended to address compulsive gambling. Japan’s willingness to expand its already robust gambling industry further without taking steps to combat addiction makes it an outlier among developed nations. And it is exactly this indifference to excessive wagering that has enabled the disorder to spread through society.

Family Connection

I have seen firsthand the effects of gambling on families. My grandfather, father, and husband were all compulsive gamblers, and I was also diagnosed with the disorder. People have repeatedly expressed to me their dismay at my inability to avoid the trap that snared my father and grandfather. While I can sympathize with this view, it illustrates an underlying ignorance of the affliction. The reality is that over wagering very often runs in families, and it is by no means unusual to hear of third-generation addicts, such as myself.

Of course, no child of a gambling addict wants to repeat the mistakes of their parents, but many wind up trudging down the same dark road. In my case, I was shocked at realizing that I too had become a compulsive gambler. It filled me with feelings of guilt and disappointment, and all I could do was ask how I had succumbed so easily to the affliction.

To answer that question, I had to look back at my own life experiences. My mother divorced my father early on due to his gambling habit. She returned to her own parents’ home with me in tow, but this was hardly better as my grandfather also spent hours on end at pachinko parlors. His gambling strained relations among family members and finances, and we had to live hand to mouth. Our situation was so desperate that when I entered junior high school my mother could not even afford to buy me a school uniform and backpack like the other students had.

Still, I would go with my grandfather when he played pachinko and was already a fixture at the parlors he frequented by the time I was in kindergarten. Through these outings I learned early on that gambling was fun. I was not the only person influenced by my grandfather’s gambling habit either. When the family gathered at the New Year or other holidays, we would all play the traditional Japanese card games of hanafuda or mahjong.

Secretly, though, we disdained our grandfather’s wagering. I suspect that each of us felt assured that we would never turn out to be a helpless gambler like he was. I certainly know that I did.

When you grow up surrounded by gambling as I did, it comes to be a normal aspect of life. After I met my husband, who also had a penchant for betting, hardly any time passed before we had given ourselves over completely to playing the odds.

This is my background, but there are thousands of gambling addicts who came of age in environments where there was no excessive wagering. Instead, they may have learned to gamble from a friend, kept on doing it, and became addicted over time.

This being the case, it might be easier to understand excessive betting by imagining it as an allergy. Some people simply have by nature a stronger reaction to the allergen of gambling. It is not some rare and mysterious malady, but a condition prevalent across all walks of life.

However, one must personally experience the disorder to understand it, a factor that makes it difficult for individuals and society as a whole to perceive of it as an illness. As a result, there has been little effort to provide accurate information about the disease, put preventative measures in place, or establish programs to help those suffering its devastating effects.

Breaking the Enabling Chain

The reaction of family members is critical for a person trying to kick their gambling addiction. As with other addictions, it is vital that parents and other relatives do not enable the addict by stepping in to clean up their messes. To start down the road to recovery, a person must first recognize they have a problem and squarely face the repercussions of their actions.

Few Japanese, though, realize that enabling behavior like paying off debts robs the addict of the need to take responsibility for their disorder. Without it, though, excessive gambling continues unabated, and families must spend their energy and resources cleaning up the ensuing messes.

In my case, it took 10 years of desperate struggle before my husband and I were finally able to break the bonds of our addiction. We frantically worked to pay back all our debts, an emotionally draining endeavor, and then sought help. Experts at a dedicated clinic diagnosed our disorder and put us in touch with a self-help group for gambling addicts. Having this support enabled us to concentrate on putting our lives back together.

Recent research suggests a genetic and environmental connection for addictions such as gambling. In 2014, a research team at the University of California Berkeley published a study that indicated that genes, in particular their impact on the neurotransmitter dopamine, affect value-based decision making in both social and nonsocial settings. I hope these results lead to further research into the relationship between heredity and gambling addiction that will eventually produce a means of preventing and curing this terrible affliction.

Defenseless in the Face of Addiction

There are three key factors contributing to the excessively high incidence of gambling addiction in Japan.

First is the wide-spread popularity of and ready access to pachinko and slot machines. The omnipresence of parlors—there are approximately 10,000 across Japan—makes gambling a convenient leisure activity. The sheer number of establishments is a distinguishing factor of gambling addiction in Japan compared to other advanced nations and is the reason why people hooked on pachinko and slot machines account for 80% of addicts. Paradoxically, there is virtually no public outcry over the abundance of gaming parlors.

A second, subtler factor is Japanese perceptions of personal responsibility and the nation’s oft-noted “culture of shame.” Growing up, most Japanese are taught to mind their own affairs and above all, never cause trouble for other people. Personal and family problems are not to be aired publicly, and losing self-control is frowned on. Anything that might be perceived as shameful must be kept hidden at all cost.

These social factors reduce the likelihood that gambling addicts or family members who turn to the authorities, a friend, or an acquaintance will receive the help they are seeking. More probably they will get lectured about their perceived shortcomings. Parental and marital relations might come under scrutiny, or a frank sit-down and firm talking-to might be advised. Family members may be encouraged to confront the addict about their selfish behavior. However, such platitudes are of no practical use to addicts and their families, and only make them feel increasingly boxed in and isolated.

The third factor—and here too lurks the Japanese notion of personal responsibility—is the government’s neglect in developing countermeasures to address gambling addiction. Even though Japan is a gambling superpower, it has no policies to address excessive wagering. Neither has it adopted the principle popular in many other countries of holding the gambling industry responsible for the negative impacts of betting.

Countries like Singapore and the United States that boast large gambling industries have many basic measures in place aimed at curbing compulsive wagering. These include age checks, customer and wage limits at casinos, awareness campaigns, preventative education for minors, establishment of support organizations and trained personnel to help gambling addicts, funding for surveys and research, and advertising limitations.

By contrast, Japan does not even make certain that establishments consistently check the age of patrons. The situation may soon change, though.

It is true that the casino bill easily passed in the Diet and that further legislation is slated for the next ordinary session in January 2018. However, the drive in Japan to end the long-standing ban on casinos has inadvertently drawn attention to the ongoing problem of compulsive gambling. Thanks to increased public interest, the ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party has introduced a bill establishing measures against gambling addiction.

Only time will tell what the fallout from allowing casinos in Japan will be. In the meantime, those of us struggling with gambling disorders as well as our families desperately hope that the Japanese government will seize on this moment to finally implement robust and effective measures to address the crippling problem of gambling addiction.

(Originally published in Japanese on November 27, 2017. Banner photo: Customers sit at pachinko machines. © Jiji)

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