“Direct me in the paths of your commands, for there I find delight.” Psalm 119:35
Out of curiosity as a relative newcomer to Japan, I cautiously opened the door to the gaudily decorated establishment and peeked in. I was harshly greeted with an immediate sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells (cigarette smoke) that encouraged me to make a hasty retreat to the comparatively quiet sidewalk. That was my first and only direct experience with the infamous Japanese parlor game known as pachinko (パチンコ). Pachinko is often compared to the arcade game of pinball since it is a mechanical entertainment device that involves the manipulation of steel balls. However, pachinko is significantly different from its Western counterpart in a variety of ways and, on top of that, it is deeply rooted in Japanese gambling culture.
The word “pachinko” is derived from the onomatopoeic sound “pachin,” which is a clicking or snapping noise the machine makes when the balls drop through and this sound is combined with the suffix “ko,” which means “little.” These machines were initially developed in the 1920s as a children’s toy, but within a few years evolved into a popular adult pastime. A pachinko resembles a vertical pinball machine but it utilizes multiple small steel balls that can be slightly directed by the player as they fall through a series of steel pins or nails. The objective is to capture as many balls as possible in the small openings along the course before they reach the bottom.
These balls can then be exchanged for prizes which can in turn be discretely converted into hard currency in compliance with Japan’s prohibition of gambling for cash. As such, these so-called pachinko parlors are a Japanese version of casinos where guests play slot machines. It is estimated that roughly a tenth of the Japanese population frequents one of Japan’s 10,600 pachinko parlors once a week and that the annual gambling revenue from pachinko is thirty times the yearly gambling earnings of Las Vegas. To maintain this delicate balance between winning and losing, pachinko parlors employ “kugushi” (釘師), or “nail adjusters” who expertly adjust or bend the pins within the pachinko machines. This fine-tuning serves to protect profit margins, but at the same time provides a sufficient number of favorable outcomes to attract customers. Some customers will line up at the pachinko parlor entrance several hours before it opens in order to gain access to their favorite machine.
If you closely examine a pachinko machine, you will soon discover that there are countless courses a ball can take as gravity takes over and it makes its way to the bottom. The goal of the player is to manipulate the course or path of the ball to his advantage. In the game of life, most of us would like to be in the position where we can influence the path ahead of us for a favorable outcome. Even though such power lies beyond our means, this limitation fails to quench our ever-present desire to control our own destiny where we naively believe happiness awaits us. Scripture tells us that such joy or delight is certainly available, but it only comes as we follow the commands or course laid out for us by an all-knowing, all-powerful God. (Psalm 119:35) As our heavenly kugushi, God lovingly and flawlessly adjusts the various “nails” in our lives in line with His desired outcome. Our only response therefore should be faithful obedience as we submit to the course uniquely laid out for us. Our reward is not a cheap trinket or even a cash prize, but rather, a meaningful and purposeful life that brings glory to God and delight to us. When we obey, we come out winners.