Pachinko operators offer to help show game addicts the door
Julian Ryall in Tokyo
Like any addict, Japanese hooked on pachinko get their fix in the gaudy parlours. Outlined in neon and full of upright pinball machines that give off a constant, deafening cacophony, this form of gambling is the national pastime but, increasingly, it is a slippery slope.
Blamed for personal bankruptcies, domestic disharmony and even, on occasions, death, pachinko addicts now have a lifeline to help them kick the habit.
'Until now, these people had nowhere to turn and no one to support them, so we decided that we needed to provide that help,' said Tomo Kinoshita, a spokesman for the National Federation of Pachinko Operators' Unions.
'If people want to stop playing and seek help, we will help them get up and walk through the exit door.'
The federation has joined up with a group called Recovery Support Network to set up a hotline staffed by four experienced counsellors.
Mr Kinoshita admits his industry does not have the rosiest of images. 'Helping people is our responsibility because we sometimes get bad press, like when you read about a couple who go into a parlour and play for five or six hours straight and when they go back to the car their child has died,' he said.
Japan's pachinko industry is worth an estimated 29 trillion yen ($1.9 trillion) a year - more than the country's top five carmakers' combined profits - and the country's 21 million enthusiasts play an average of 25 times a year, spending more than 100,000 yen, according to government figures.
It also operates on the edge of the law in a country where gambling is illegal.
Players collect trays of the steel balls that ping around inside the machine by directing them into holes on the board and can exchange them for prizes such as cigarettes or chocolate. They can also be exchanged for tablets that, once taken off the premises and to a nearby booth, are turned into cash.
Inevitably, organised crime has a hand in the proceedings and there is a select band of pachinko pros who travel the country making a living off the game.