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Saturday, Nov. 1, 2003


Following the bouncing ball, pachinko-style

After almost a quarter of a century in this land, I generally find the cliche "inscrutable Japanese" to be undeserved. For I can "scrute" them OK.

Sure, the frontiers of my ignorance are ever expanding, and I routinely know much less than I claim to. (Which means . . . if I claim to know this, I may in fact be wrong.)

However, being married to a Japanese and living in Japan all these years has served to scrub the inscrutability out of most situations. Except one:


For I cannot fathom pachinko. I cannot comprehend how a mere ball bearing tumbling its way down a path of metal pegs has managed to hypnotize this otherwise much too sensible nation.

Yet in the shadows of every train station and within the nooks of each small town throughout this fair land, there they stand: the ringing, blinking bastions of vertical pinball, the ever-spinning gold watches of the overworked masses.

Always full, too. Always hopping with the ping of metal balls and matching background music amped high enough to make the dead sit up and demand earplugs.

Oh, I have no opposition to games. Why, in my youth I used to crawl all over pinball machines, a sort of pinball lizard. I have also lost enough rounds of Othello to know why Iago hated him. And I admit that the guy who invented computer solitaire owns part of my soul.

But I cannot get a handle on pachinko.

"That's because you don't know how to play," says my wife.

Ha. What's to know? You get your handful of metal balls, you flip the lever or turn the knob and then watch them go, go, go -- until they are soon gone, gone, gone.

"What you don't like," she continues, "is that other people can figure out how to win and you can't."

There is a story here. Actually, perhaps 10 stories, all the same.

Whenever we host a guest from overseas and subsequently haul them about to try all the Japanese "things" -- like bathing with naked "o-baa-sans," gnawing on freshly killed fish or "skinshipping" with strangers in a vacuum-packed train car, etc. -- much sooner than later our guest will turn a head to the neon spilling bead and say: "Hey, what're those people doing over there? Can we go see, huh? Can we, can we, can we?"

So I play the good host and show them how it's done. That is, I lose my balls in about 10 seconds (no symbolism intended). Then they try. The next thing we know, we are up to our knees in baskets of shiny metal.

Of course, we can trade these for all kinds of prizes or even cash, but most often our guests say: "I just want these metal balls! More and more metal balls!" Then they scream, "Help! I can't stop!"

Neither, it seems, can Japan.

Pachinko playing is a national obsession more pervasive than the lust for cellular phones, more insidious than the addiction to the Yomiuri Giants and more mesmerizing than the never-ending stare of Hello Kitty. Hardly a month goes by, it seems, without news of some young mother somewhere in Japan being caught in a pachinko parlor with her wee child, her pet poodle or her common sense locked up inside her Nissan.

When I ask people to explain this, they always give the same answer: "It's a form of gambling, that's all. Haven't you ever gambled?" Well, yes, I have an international marriage, don't I?

Yet the gambling argument doesn't hold water. For I don't hear of mothers locking their kids in their car so they can go play the ponies or join in a quick hand of five card stud.

It's not gambling dependency. It's pachinko dependency.

A friend offers another explanation: "It's a way of escaping. Some people drown in booze, others park in front of the Internet all day, and still others haunt movie houses. Whatever, in the case of pachinko, you sit there hardly moving, hardly hearing and hardly thinking. Your brain and soul take flight from all responsibilities, and you are free, the way a zombie is free. And all of us have a little zombie in us, don't we? In fact, some of us have a lot.

"Besides, if you're good, you can take home some extra cash to boot."

Yet what do zombies want with money?

I know a guy who is not a zombie, but a taxi driver, though you might not tell from his driving. He also reaps extra coin from pachinko. I asked what he does with it all.

His answer: "Buy booze, pay Internet fees and go to movies."

Maybe money is, after all, the chief attraction. Or perhaps not so much the money, but rather the money-effort equation. They are very few jobs where you can earn income by just slouching on a chair and staring into space all day, with no bullying boss or coworkers to hound you.

"Hmm," says my wife, eyeing my writer's desktop. "Sounds a lot like what you do."

"But with pachinko," I tell her, "there is always the chance you'll come up empty. That the balls will not bounce your way and you won't bring home the bacon. That all your time will have been wasted."

She eyes me. "Right. Just like a writer with rejection slips."

"Don't depress me," I tell her.

"Perhaps, then, what you need is a pachinko break to lighten your day."

Point taken. One man's foolishness is another man's fun. In other words, relaxation is in the eye of the relaxer.

Now there's something I can understand.

But the game of pachinko? That, I'm afraid, keeps bouncing further and further beyond my grasp.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com

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