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In spite of being a very modern country, as modern as they come, this modernity does not extend very much to Japan’s gambling laws, which are still fairly strict and conservative by today’s standards.
Most forms of gambling are illegal under Japan’s Penal Code. Certain forms are allowed, for instance playing the game of Pachinko, a combination of slots and pinball, which has enough of a history in Japanese culture to afford it an exemption under criminal law. (1)
Pachinko is wildly popular in Japan, and there are over 12,000 ‘Pachinko parlors’ in the country, taking in almost $400 billion dollars a year. While the payouts aren’t in cash, and involve tokens that can be exchanged for prizes, players generally sell the tokens for cash at a neighboring location, generally under the same ownership as the Pachinko parlor, and they get around the law that way, and the practice is seen as completely acceptable by the authorities.
Also, for whatever reason, betting on races is permitted in Japan as well, and this extends to a variety of different races, not just horse racing but car racing, speedboat racing, and even bicycle racing. This race betting is permitted as long as local authorities authorize it, and many areas of Japan do.
The only other form of legalized gambling is playing the lottery, and lottery playing is big here. Aside from that, there’s a lot of underground gambling that goes on here, including underground casinos, with much of this being run by the Yakuza, the Japanese version of the Mafia, with over 100,000 members. (2)
There are no legal casinos or legal live poker rooms in Japan since operating one is against the law, although there has been support over the last while for changing these laws and allowing for them, and while there is still a fair bit of resistance toward this, we’re getting closer to this becoming a reality, perhaps very close. (3)
If and when this gets approved, the expectation is that Japan will go big with this, and experts predict that this will lead to Japan being the world’s third largest land based gambling market, behind only Las Vegas and Macau. Some of the biggest names in the gambling industry have expressed interest and this would also mean Japan’s live poker scene would see an expansion as well, although most of the growth is expected to be in casino gaming aside from poker.
Poker In Japan
Poker is not one of the most popular games in Japan, and while there is lots of underground gambling that goes on in this country, very little of it involves poker playing, at least not to the extent that you would expect given this country’s population base, population density, affluence, and affinity for Western culture.
Still though, there are a fair number of private live poker games, although it is said that they are mostly frequented by foreign nationals, not native Japanese. Since these games are of course illegal, you do need to be in the know and have connections to gain admittance.
So land-based poker here would probably be fairly limited at present even once it becomes legal, but there’s no doubt that this would take the games more out of the underground and serve to make them more plentiful as well as legitimate.
Of course, having live poker games being illegal no doubt severely limits the amount of live poker in Japan, but given that it is so much easier to participate, online poker does not suffer from the same handicaps that live poker does, and there’s been quite a poker boom in Japan lately, in spite of this being a fairly new game to this country.
The Japanese are very well connected compared to most countries, and with the internet and the popular media comes things like the appeal of online poker, including popular maintstream sites that have began marketing quite aggressively to the Japanese people.
Poker In Japan Is Really Set To Grow
A Japanese player, Naoya Kihara, winning the country’s first World Series of Poker gold bracelet certainly helped make the game more popular here, and Kihara has also taken it upon himself to be an ambassador of the game to his fellow Japanese, and in particular, in trying to explain to people that poker isn’t just gambling but is also a game of skill that takes the gambling experience to another level. (4)
The need for this does indicate that the Japanese aren’t all that familiar with the game, which is certainly true, but that is changing, and will probably continue to do so as the years go by and the reach of the game becomes even more extended in Japan.
This is certainly not a country whose people don’t take to gambling, and in fact the Japanese love to gamble, and the hope is that turning on more and more of them to the game of poker may end up creating a huge online poker market, and it very well may.
Japan does not play an active role in looking to prohibit online poker or even online gambling in general, and there has been no record of anyone being prosecuted for this. In spite of the laws concerning this being written all the way back in 1907, the prohibitions here are based on betting generally, at least betting not specifically authorized by law, and online poker and online gambling isn‘t. (5)
Japan hasn’t done anything as far as online poker goes actually, they haven’t moved to look to either regulate it or to block their people from accessing it. Countries that do have regulated online poker also tend to have regulated live poker and casino games as well, and with those who do not, for whatever reasons, permitting live play is generally the first step.
Japan is also not one of the countries that poker sites single out as countries that they do not wish to serve, and if anything, the opposite occurs, and poker sites tend to look at the Japanese market with quite a bit of excitement, as the growth potential here is huge, given where it is now and where it could go.
PokerStars in particular is paying more and more attention to the Japanese market, in the hopes that they can recruit a lot more people here to try and fall in love with the game that so many players from other countries have come to enjoy so much. (6)
So with the expected liberalization of the laws that are expected soon, along with the continued efforts of the poker industry to sell their game in Japan, so the future here looks bright. While we wait for this, online poker players in Japan can simply play wherever they want and as much as they want, so for all practical purposes, things are already pretty great here.