Japan struggles to shut down pachinko parlors as it battles virus

TOKYO — Municipal governments in Japan are criticizing pachinko parlors that have remained open despite requests to close down as the country tries to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

The parlors are popular gambling destinations, and lines can often be seen forming outside of the noisy halls before they open in the morning.

“I am disclosing the names [of the shops] in order to prevent the further spread of the virus,” Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura told reporters on Friday. “I am asking Osaka residents not to go to these shops.”

Osaka named six parlors that refused to comply with the municipal government’s requests, made through phone calls and in written messages.

Japan has imposed a loose lockdown under the guise of the national government’s declaring a state of emergency in a bid to bring down the number of patients. As of Thursday, the country had 11,772 people who had tested positive for the virus. The number has been increasing by the hundreds every day.

Not all parlors are refusing to comply, and some of those that are not going along are in financial binds, according to the Tokyo Pachinko and Pachislot Cooperative Association.

“There were many shops whose temporary closures would lead to bankruptcies,” a representative of the association said, adding that many member shops have called for financial support from the government.

Still, he continued, “it is unfortunate that there are stores that have refused to close.”

Japanese law does not allow local authorities to forcefully shut down stores. During the emergency, officials are relying on requests and the possibility of shaming businesses that do not comply by publicly naming them.

Osaka is the first municipality to go down this road, though it is not the only place where pachinko parlors are flaunting officials’ requests.

Playing pachinko is gambling, which can be addictive, and there are reports that many players are traveling across prefecture borders to find an open parlor and get their fix. This has earned them the wrath of locals, who fear some of these gamblers might be bringing the coronavirus with them.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said that by Tuesday she would start naming parlors that are flaunting the city’s request and remain open. According to Koike, the city has called 41 parlors to ask that they temporarily close.

Elsewhere, Miyagi Gov. Shunji Kouno said during a press conference on Friday that he will request the prefecture’s gaming sites to close as they are suspected of drawing gamblers from other prefectures and increasing the risk presented by the pandemic.

Small pachinko parlors can draw dozens of gamblers who normally play about a meter away from one another, though the shops say they are now social distancing their customers.

The timing is critical: Japan’s annual Golden Week vacation period begins next week, and some governors are calling for businesses to give their employees 12 straight holidays beginning Saturday in an effort to keep people from going out, which could cut off the virus’s path to more infections.

Fukuoka Gov. Hiroshi Ogawa on Thursday said his prefecture has sent letters asking 36 pachinko shops and restaurants to close. According to Ogawa, 90% of the pachinko parlors in Fukuoka have closed, but 10 remained open as of Thursday.

According to 2017 data by the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development, 0.8% of adults in Japan were suspected of having gambling addictions. A major outlet for gambling addiction in the country is pachinko. There are about 760 parlors in Tokyo alone, according to the Tokyo Pachinko and Pachislot Cooperative Association.

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