Japan’s pachinko gambling halls defy ‘self-restraint’ squads urging virus vigilance

“Never come back.” he added, singling out one man.

Japan, unlike many other countries, is not imposing a lockdown by legal mandate but is attempting social distancing through mostly pleading and persuasion.

That has given rise to another only-in-Japan creation: a group calling itself the “self-restraint police,” a network of civilian vigilantes trying to enforce the stay-home request through social pressure. Among their targets: the crowded pachinko halls.

Japan’s ‘new normal’

On the whole, Japan’s light-touch approach on lockdowns appears to be working. On Thursday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lifted the state of emergency across 39 of the country’s 47 prefectures, arguing that the daily rate of new infections is falling and pressures on the medical system easing.

Japan was ready, he said, for a phased return to a “new normal” of life with the coronavirus, where businesses can gradually reopen. But self-restraint — meaning stay at home as much as possible — will be still be the order of the day.

That leaves lots of room for tension — with some people feeling free to ignore the pleas and others frustrated that the sacrifice is not being borne equally.

Under the state of emergency, Japan requested pachinko parlors to close. Most complied at first. Pachinko parlors that close qualify for government compensation. Yet growing numbers, including many of Tokyo’s 780 parlors, are now ignoring the request.

On Wednesday, nearly 100 people lined up in the street outside Diamond Pachinko & Slot in Tokyo before its scheduled 11 a.m. opening, eager to grab the best machines.

Risk ignored

Gambling is supposedly illegal in Japan, but pachinko parlors are in effect exempted from the prohibition. They are ubiquitous and huge business here.

Punters crowd into small rooms to play pachinko machines and more traditional slot machines, normally enveloped in smoke, loud music and electronic jingles.

The law on gambling is circumvented by the simple ruse of making gamblers exchange tokens for cash at booths off the main premises.

On the face of it, pachinko parlors appear to be perfect places for the virus to spread, even if no outbreaks have so far been linked to them.

“I do feel there is a risk of infection,” said a 24-year-old man in the line, who declined to give his name to preserve his privacy. “But people who like to play pachinko are not really thinking about others when they do it.”

The man normally works at a game arcade but said it closed because of the emergency. That left him with time on his hands — and this week he chose to play pachinko.

Nearby, a 30-year-old construction worker who only gave his first name, Naoya, said it was unfair to single out the pachinko industry, which he said was being scapegoated.

“Look at electronics shops and home centers,” he said. “Enormous numbers of people go there on weekends, and they are overcrowded.”

Naming and shaming

Pachinko parlors that have remained open say they have implemented a series of measures to lower the risk of the virus spreading. They have mandated face masks, banned smoking except in designated rooms, regularly disinfect the machines and bathrooms and encourage social distancing where possible.

But in the Diamond pachinko parlor, many people sat at adjacent machines.

Last week, Tokyo’s government took a page from the “self-restraint police” playbook. Authorities began “naming and shaming” defiant pachinko parlors.

The tactic hasn’t worked. Now, 15 four-member teams of government officials are crisscrossing the city to try personal persuasion.

“We are asking those we find reopened, one-by-one, and doing it repeatedly if necessary,” said Takuya Higashi, a city official running the effort. “It’s like a cat-and-mouse game that’s going on.”

Other teams walk through the city streets, carrying megaphones and placards urging people to stay home and avoid crowded, confined spaces.

But this week, one of this teams seemed to be struggling to get the message across in Tokyo’s famous Shibuya entertainment district.

These streets are much less busy than before the virus struck, but busier than they were a week or two ago. On Wednesday, passersby ignored the officials in black suits shouting slogans.

That has only made the “self-restraint police” more infuriated.

Bars and restaurants that have stayed open — even if they have respected recommended early closing times — have found bitter and sometimes threatening notes pinned to their doors.

People have been trolled on social media for traveling across prefecture boundaries, and one pachinko parlor in Ishikawa in central Japan that had been “named and shamed” by the government found one of its glass doors damaged this week.

Reiwa Take-chan, the YouTube “self-restraint” vigilante, said he was “angry with people who play pachinko for selfish reasons, at a time when the governments and the people are joining hands to cooperate.”

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