Gambling history in Japan

Gambling in Japan has been strictly banned and regulated since Chapter 23 of the Criminal Code, also known as Law No.45 of the Japan Penal Code, explicitly prohibited organised wagering or private sales of lottery tickets – with hefty fines in Yen and punishment of imprisonment as the deterrent.

However, exceptions to the rule have persisted for decades, and the country has a long and interesting history of gambling even before the Criminal Code was established – hanafuda cards, panchinko machines, mahjong, lotteries and other games have held cultural significance for some time now. We take a close look at Japan’s gambling history to better understand where the island nation is heading in the future, in regards to real money gambling.

Card games and Hanafuda

Hanafuda (花札?), also known as Hwatu (화투) and which translates as “flower cards” is a special type of card game in Japan renowned for its complexity and its ties to the earliest forms of gambling in the country. During the feudal days of Japan in the 1500s (the Tenben era), playing card games were mostly a pastime of the nobility – commoners did not have the time or status to enjoy them. But when the Portuguese arrived in 1549 led by missionary Francis Xavier to bring Christianity to the country, the 48-card European hombre card decks the sailors brought with them spread like wildfire with the local Japanese citizens.

The shogunate eventually banned foreign playing cards in 1633 when they cut off contact with the Western world, with private gambling on card games banned, too. But the popularity of playing cards and using them for gambling persisted, as the Japanese continuously invented new games even when the shogunate swiftly banned them as they grew in popularity and status.

Unsun Karuta was one such substitute, played with a 75-card deck and decorated with Chinese art; it was never was as popular as the original Western decks. In the 1700s, Mekuri Karuta took its place and reverted back to 48-card decks divided into four sets of 12 – it proved much more popular as a gambling card game and was banned in 1791.

Hanafuda was born in the late 18th century and persisted because of a key difference and lucky timing. It was a hybrid of Japanese and Western styles: 48-card deck divided into twelve groups of four, but with intricately painted pictures of nature on the cards instead of numbers – this meant new rules had to be made and it could not be used for existing gambling games. By the time of its creation, the Japanese government had also relaxed its stance on playing cards and gambling due to the cold hard fact that people would always want to play them and use them for gambling purposes no matter how much times they banned them.

Still, their repression had dulled the popularity of card games in general, and hanafuda only really took off in 1889, when Fusajiro Yamauchi established Nintendo Koppai to sell hanafuda cards painted on mulberry tree bark. It eventually caught on with private circles, gambling parlours and criminal elements with the Yakuza, who even incorporated the imagery of the cards into their tattoos – consequently making the game heavily associated with the Underworld of Japan and deterring many law-abiding citizens from playing it.

Despite all of these circumstances, hanafuda was very popular with a select group of Japan and many persisted in turning it into a gambling game. The game has twelve suits representing months of the year; each suit has four cards, each is represented by a flower and usually there are two normal and two special cards in a suit. Typically, each suit will have two normal cards and two special cards. Point values vary as games and rules are usually different depending on who is playing, but the aim of the game is generally to accumulate more points than the opponent in a set number of rounds played – check out our hanafuda rules article for more information.

Meanwhile, Nintendo Koppai went on to become Nintendo, the world-renowned video game company behind the Game Boy, Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii and many other popular console hardware and games software properties like Mario and The Legend of Zelda. They still produce hanafuda in low-print runs, but more to celebrate their company history than to provide gambling cards for enthusiasts.

Sports betting history in Japan

Since the Criminal Code’s establishment in 1907, betting on public sports – horse, bicycle racing, motorboat and motorcycle – is allowed (the latter two being added over the years). With around 20,000 gambling halls dotted around the country and a booming mobile betting market despite strict legislation, betting on sports in the island nation is a major pastime. J-League is also a very popular betting market, and despite government efforts, many Japanese citizens also use foreign online bookmakers to place bets due to the gray area it comes under with the current Japan laws.

All four aforementioned betting markets come under the public sports banner, which are regulated by local government organisations and corporations, and which have special laws allowing wagering. Tickets are available to purchase by citizens at booths in the cities around the country, most notably Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama.

The federal government and the Japan Racing Association run horse racing in Japan, while 24 local governments run non-JRA associated tracks throughout the nation, though the quality and times the races run in these locations mean most of the big crowds attend the JRA-run events. JRA’s management of the sport is strict, and as a result few foreign horses compete in the country.

Japanese lotteries history

The lottery has existed in some shape or form in Japan since the 17th century. Around 1842, it was discontinued due to government intervention but once World War II ended in 1945, it was re-opened by the national Japanese government under the name Takarakuji (宝くじ) – meaning “treasure lottery” or “fortune lottery”. This move was made to use the profits earned to rebuild the country, which at that point had been subjected to two nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The national government eventually relinquished control of Takarakuji to the local government bodies in 1954. The Minister of Home Affairs approves the lotteries, and hands the operation of them over to banks such as Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank. In these days, the lotteries were used to generate income for Japanese government bodies, but are now often granted to various charities in addition to the lucky winners.

Lotteries in Japan have always been tax-free, making it appealing to those who decide to buy a ticket and have a go at the jumbo draws. Until 2003, only Japanese citizens could buy tickets for the Japan Jumbo; now international players can take part.

Japanese casino history

Japan has never here had a casino within the country – at least, one in the Western sense of the term. Operating a gambling venue like a casino is strictly illegal. Elements within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government have attempted to open casinos for tourism boosts over the years, but in 2014 decided not to pass an Integrated Resorts (IR) bill, halting progress.

Fortunately, the future of gambling in Japan in regards to casinos is looking a little brighter, even if one won’t open in time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as some may have opened. The submission of the Integrated Resort (IR) Enabling Act by lawmakers is underway, though it has been delayed until the second half of 2016.