Gambling in Japan is not black and white. In fact, gambling is considered a criminal offence and is generally banned across the country.
Those that are found gambling can face large fines and even serve jail time.
However, there are exceptions to this rule. Betting on horse racing and the lottery are two forms of gambling that are accepted in Japan.
If you are confused, don’t worry. This article is going to show you everything you need to know about gambling in Japan before you go there so you don’t end up on the wrong side of the law.
Horse Racing (Keiba)
Betting on horse races is legal in Japan. The Japan Racing Association (JRA) operates all the major horse races in the country. While the races are efficient, the tracks are very long a lack the charm usually familiar with the sport.
The horse racing betting system is also very complicated, while due to strict rules and regulations, many great international horses do not attend the events.
These rules also prevent the quality of racing reaching greater heights.
If you wanted to bet on local horse races, local governments run their own tracks across the country. To date, there are 24 in total and there is a totally different atmosphere compared to tracks owned by the JRA.
Local events are held on weekdays whereas JRA-operated events occur on weekends.
However, while there is a greater opportunity to make more bets, the racing itself is not that enjoyable to watch, with many of the horses not worthy of really competing.
Forget trying to bet with any sort of strategy; for the most part, it’s like playing the lottery.
For anyone that is serious about horse racing, JRA tracks are the events you should attend. There are two tracks in Hokkaido, two in Kansai, three in Tokyo, one in Kyushu and another two in northern Honshu.
If you are not close to any of these areas, try and find a JRA off-track betting facility, known as WINS. Alternatively, you can get an online JRA account and make your bets there while you watch the race on TV.
For those of you that do decide on going to a JRA track, be prepared for large crowds. Horse racing is very popular in Japan, with more than 100,000 people routinely attending the big races.
But even though it’s an accepted form of gambling in these areas, try and avoid openly reading the keiba section of a newspaper.
This is because it is considered immoral so to avoid unnecessary confrontation, keep it to yourself and at your accommodation.
There is certainly money to be made from horse racing in Japan. Due to the lack of foreign horses or jockeys, it can be an interesting, but lucrative, opportunity to bet on the outsiders.
You can make other bets too aside from just picking a winner. These include trifectas, perfectas and also something called ‘the wide’, a bet that pays when your selected horses finish either first and second, first and third or second and third.
For anyone that likes to bet on three horses on one card, it’s a great option as you are never betting against yourself.
If you find it hard to understand how the betting system works due to a language barrier, there is a JRA English website that can tell you everything you need to know.
So overall, horse racing is a great way to find lots of betting action in Japan. Spend the weekend with the masses at these JRA events and make some money at the same time.
But when you’re away from the track, just be wary about who you talk about the racing with and where you are. For anyone not in a keiba area, you can bet on these horses online via a JRA website, on the phone or via WINS.
This is a unique way to gamble in Japan as, unlike horse racing, it is not controlled by the Japanese government. Instead, they police it by taxing the owners of pachinko parlors.
Technically speaking, it’s illegal for pachinko parlors to directly give money to patrons. To get around this, they issue tokens that can be redeemed for cash at token-redeeming stations outside the shop.
Every pachinko parlor has its own machines set out how it likes, but most of them are conformed to the industry standard. Apparently, this standard is programmed to give roku wari gaeshi, ie a 60% return rate.
Now, in Las Vegas, most of the slot machines have more than a 90% return rate, so by comparing the two, you can see how your odds of winning are much worse playing pachinko.
Regardless, you can still have a lot of fun playing pachinko. But if you do decide to play, be prepared to be there for a while.
While the payout is not big, it does require a big investment from you in terms of time, making it very appealing to locals that want to get away from their daily lives. In some ways, pachinko acts as an escape.
The environment won’t be for everyone though. If you want to gamble in Japan and play pachinko, don’t expect to do it in luxury.
When you play pachinko, you aren’t really playing to win. The true spirit of the game is far more than that, making it the most Japanese-esque type of game there is to play.
Most people get put off by the loud noise, having to complete needless steps that involve plastic boxes and steel balls, the smoke, needing to stare for hours on end at a machine waiting to click some ball bearings – but these are the things that the Japanese are very fond of.
While horse racing is for the weekend with the intention of going there to make some money, pachinko parlors are available to visit every day, giving you a chance to play for hours and enjoy yourself. It’s very popular to locals so you’re bound to have a good time if you embrace it.
The Lottery (takarakuji)
Before the lottery was like it is today, people had to go to a department store and get ahold of a coupon giving the right to buy a lottery ticket.
Without them, there was no way to get a lottery ticket. If you didn’t have one, you could’ve been sure that a security guard would have asked to see it.
Nowadays, it’s possible to buy a lottery ticket directly, but only at certain booths. You can find them near most of the major train stations and outside of department stores on the street.
Gambling in Japan on jumbo lotteries have huge prizes, close to one billion yen. The numbers are printed on the tickets which are then sold.
You can buy a jumbo lottery ticket for 300 yen each, with the option to either buy consecutive or random numbered tickets.
This is the same system used for the one hundred yen lottery, the hyaku-en kuji. It’s a more local version of the lottery but the prize money on offer is far less compared to takarakuji.
If you want to buy a ticket for these games, all you need to do is name the lottery you wish to play, how much tickets you want and whether you want consecutive or random numbers.
There are other versions of the lottery you can gamble in Japan that are similar to what’s available in the west, such as scratch-offs and pick-sixes. In this fame, you are forced to mark a card before you make a bet.
The odds of winning are displayed on the back of the pick-six and there is also an option where the computer makes the selections for you.
The amount of money you can win depends on how much is in the pool. If no one wins the grand prize, the money carries over to the next draw.
Over time, if no winner is found, the prize pool can grow to sizes that rival the west.
One of the reasons that people like to play the lottery in Japan is that if the jackpot is won, there is no obligation to tell anyone that you’ve won.
The winner simply receives the money from the lottery association via a bank transfer. Plus, the winnings in Japan are totally tax-free – always something to celebrate!
Bicycle Racing (keirin)
In the US and other western countries, bike racing is only ever talked about during the Olympics.
On the other hand, in Japan, there is a devoted fan base, with the betting system miles ahead of that of horse racing.
The keirin began shortly after World War II ended. The concept is as follows. The competitors cycle several laps around the course while following a motorcycle that increases its speed over each lap.
A couple of laps before the end, the motorcycle pulls away and it becomes a sprint to the finish line.
The sport was first invented for the purposes of gambling but earned legitimacy when it was recognized by the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
So far, all the ways to gamble in Japan described in this article have been legal. This is the first is not.
While no legal casinos exist in Japan, that is not to say that nothing is being done about it. The LDP has been pushing for the legalization of casinos in Japan for years, saying that they will boost tourism and the economy in the process.
If they did become legal, it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine how the casino would work. For example, playing a game of roulette would first mean selecting their numbers on a card and handing to an official to stamp, before placing their bets.
Of course, this is purely hypothetical. It’s going to be a while until something changes.
Toto – J-League Soccer Pools
For the most part, sports betting in Japan is considered a criminal offence. However, it’s possible to bet on the professional soccer league – the J-League – in a way similar to the lottery.
You must buy a Toto ticket from a sanctioned Toto booth but these are not as common as a lottery booth. They are found in strange locations like a car lot or the back of an electronics store.
By using the Toto system, it means that you don’t have to know what you’re doing or know anything about the J-League to play. You can access their picks too, but you’re more than likely to be as successful as them with a little bit of your own research.
Boat Racing (kyotei)
It’s been possible to bet on boat racing since 1952. In fact, since being introduced, it has been a staple of Japanese gambling culture. Known as ‘Boat Race’, this event was created specifically for betting purposes, just like the keirin.
There are 20 venues across Japan you can visit to take part, including Edogawa in Tokyo. At this course in particular, parimutuel betting is totally legal.
The concept is simple: six speed boats must race around a 600-metre course 3 times. Your betting options are to either bet on the winner, predict 2 of the top 3 or the precise order of the top 3 finishers.
Interestingly, both male and female riders can compete in the same race, adding to the dynamic.
Last, but not least, comes Mahjong and it has a culture unlike anything else, attracting some of the highest rollers in town. However, it shares a similarity with pachinko in that it’s only semi-legal.
It’s a tile-based game that requires a combination of skill, strategy, calculation – and, of course, an element of luck.
There are a number of different formats this game across Asia. For example, in Japan, the game is played with 3 players as opposed to 4 in other countries.
Mahjong has been the most popular table game in Japan since 2010, with dedicated parlors doing more than 300 billion yen in sales.
There is a great demand for this game and certainly something you should try while you’re there.