Pachinko (パチンコ) is a type of mechanical game originating in Japan that is used as a form of recreational arcade game, and much more frequently as a gambling device, filling a niche in Japanese gambling comparable to that of the slot machine in Western gambling, as a form of low-stakes, low-strategy gambling.
Pachinko parlors are widespread in Japan, and usually also feature a number of slot machines (called pachislo or pachislots) so these venues look and operate similarly to casinos. Modern pachinko machines have both mechanical and digital components.
Gambling for cash is illegal in Japan, but the widespread popularity of low-stakes pachinko in Japanese society has enabled a specific legal loophole allowing it to exist. Pachinko balls won from games cannot be exchanged directly for money in the parlor, nor can they be removed from the premises or exchanged with other parlors. However, they can be legally traded to the parlor for so-called "special prize" tokens (特殊景品 tokushu keihin), which can in turn be "sold" for cash to a separate vendor off-premises. These vendors (ostensibly independent from, but often owned by, the parlor owner) then sell the tokens back to the parlor at the same price paid for them—plus a small commission, creating a cash profit—without technically violating the law.
By 1994, the pachinko market in Japan was valued at ¥30 trillion (nearly $300 billion). In 1999, sales and revenue from pachinko parlors contributed 5.6% of Japan's ¥500 trillion GDP, and they employed over 330,000 people, 0.52% of all those employed in Japan. However, the sales amount of these pachinko parlors is calculated based on the total amount that customers rented pachinko balls from pachinko parlors. It is said that on average, about 85% of the money spent by customers in pachinko parlors is returned to the customers, so the sales of pachinko parlors are said to be about 15% of the statistical amount. As of 2015, Japan's pachinko market generates more gambling revenue than that of Las Vegas, Macau, and Singapore combined. Pachinko gambling's grey market nature and tremendous profit historically resulted in considerable infiltration by Yakuza, who used it as a vehicle for money laundering and racketeering. Since the 1990s, however, this has been less of an issue due to police crackdowns. There were over 7 million pachinkos around the world in 2018 with more than half of them being in Japan. Following a number of years of decline of parlours and machines, the number of pachinko machines in Japan dropped to around 2.5 million by the end of 2019.
A pachinko machine resembles a vertical pinball machine, but is different from Western pinball in several ways. It uses small (11 mm diameter) steel balls, which the owner rents to the player (usually a "pachinko parlor", featuring many individual games in rows), while pinball games use a larger, captive ball.
The player loads one or more balls into the machine, then presses and releases a spring-loaded handle, which is attached to a padded hammer inside the machine, launching the ball into a metal track. The track guides the ball over the top of the playing field; then when it loses momentum, it falls into the playing field. Some pachinko machines have a bumper to bounce the ball as it reaches the top, while others allow it to travel all the way around the field, to fall the second time it reaches the top.
The playing field is populated by numerous brass pins, several small cups into which the player hopes the ball will fall (each catcher is barely the width of the ball), and a hole at the bottom into which the ball falls if it does not enter a catcher. The ball bounces from pin to pin, both slowing its descent and deflecting it laterally across the field. A ball that enters a catcher triggers a payout, in which a number of balls are dropped into a tray at the front of the machine.
Many games made since the 1960s feature "tulip" catchers, which have small flippers that open to expand the width of the catcher. They are controlled by the machine, and may open and close randomly or in a pattern; expert players try to launch a ball so it reaches the catcher when its flippers are open.
The game's object is to win as many balls as possible, which can be exchanged for prizes. Pachinko machines were originally strictly mechanical, but have since incorporated extensive electronics, becoming similar to video slot machines. Another type of machine often found in pachinko parlors, called a "pachislot", does not involve steel balls, but are loaded with tokens or coins and trigger reels comparable to a traditional slot machine's. Online casinos also offer "pachislot" games to tailor their product to the Japanese market.
Pachinko machines were first built during the 1920s as a children's toy called the "Corinth game" (コリントゲーム, korinto gēmu), based on and named after the American "Corinthian bagatelle". Another likely inspiration was the Billard japonais, 'Japanese billiards', invented in Western Europe during the 18th century. It emerged as an adult pastime in Nagoya around 1930 and spread from there.
All of Japan's pachinko parlors were closed down during World War II but re-emerged in the late 1940s. Pachinko has remained popular since; the first commercial parlor was opened in Nagoya in 1948. As a country influenced by Japan during its occupation, Taiwan has many pachinko establishments.
An estimated 80 percent of pachinko parlors in Japan are owned by ethnic Koreans. In 2001, the British company—BS Group—bought a stake in Tokyo Plaza, which was running almost 20 parlors in all of Japan, and had also opened parlors in the United Kingdom.
Until the 1980s, pachinko machines were mechanical devices, using bells to indicate different states of the machine. Electricity was used only to flash lights and to indicate problems, such as a machine emptied of its balls. Balls were launched using a flipper; their speed was controlled by pulling the flipper down to different levels. Manufacturers in this period included Nishijin and Sankyo; most of these machines available on online auction sites today date to the 1970s. After that time, pachinko machines incorporated more electronic features, thus requiring electricity for operation.
A modern, electronic pachinko machine in a Tokyo parlor.
To play pachinko, players get a number of metal balls by inserting cash or cards directly into the machine they want to use. They then shoot the balls into the machine. Older pachinko machines use a spring-loaded lever for shooting balls individually; while later ones use a round knob, controlling the strength of a mechanically fired plunger that shoots the balls. The balls fall vertically through an array of pins, levers, cups, traps and obstacles until they enter a payoff target or reach the bottom of the playfield.
The player has a chance to get more balls if a launched ball lands in one of certain places as it falls. Having more balls is considered a benefit because it allows the player to remain in the game longer, and ultimately creates a larger winning chance.
Newer "pachislot" machines have a digital slot machine display on a large screen, where the objective is to get three numbers or symbols in a row for a jackpot. When fired, the balls drop through an array of pins, similar to a pachinko machine. Some fall into a center gate and activate the slot-machine display.
Every ball that goes into the center gate results in one spin, but there is a limit on the number of spins at one time because of the possibility of balls passing through the center gate while a spin is still in progress. Each spin pays out a small number of balls, but the objective is to hit the jackpot. The machine's programming decides the outcome of each spin.
Pachinko machines vary in several aspects—including decorative mechanics, sound, gimmicks, modes, and gates. The playing field is usually a wooden board with a transparent acrylic overlay containing artwork. Most modern machines have an LCD screen over the main start pocket. The game is played by keeping the stream of balls to the left of the screen, but many models have their optimized ball stream. Vintage machines vary in pocket location and strategy, with most having a specific center area containing win pockets.
If the first two numbers, letters, or symbols of the spin match up, the digital program will display many animations before the third reel stops spinning, to give the player an added excitement. This is called a reach (or rīchi) and sometimes longer animations are played called super reaches. Pachinko machines offer different odds in hitting a jackpot; if the player manages to obtain a jackpot, the machine will enter into payout mode.
The payout mode lasts for a number of rounds. During each round, amidst more animations and movies playing on the center screen, a large payout gate opens up at the bottom of the machine layout and the player must try to shoot balls into it. Each ball that successfully enters into this gate results in many balls being dropped into a separate tray at the bottom of the machine, which can then be placed into a ball bucket.
Hidden modes, hints, and instant wins
To enhance gameplay, modern machines have integrated several aspects not possible in vintage machines. A common one is the ability to switch between different play modes, including rare and hidden modes that can differ significantly from normal play. Two examples can be seen in the Evangelion series of pachinko machines, which include Mission Mode and Berserker Mode, ranging from having little effect on winning to being an almost guaranteed win.
Graphics in videos and light patterns can also give players a general idea of what these winning odds are. For example, a super reach may cause a change in animation, or show an introductory animation or picture. This adds excitement, with some changes having much more significance than others in terms of odds of winning on a given spin. Some machines feature instant wins. There are also second-chance wins, where a spin that appears to have lost, or to have a very low winning chance, gives the player three matching numbers and starts "fever mode".
After the payout mode has ended, the pachinko machine may do one of two things. Most Pachinko machines employ the kakuhen (確変, short for 確率変動 meaning probability change) system, where some percentage of the possible jackpots on the digital slot machine result in the odds of hitting the next jackpot multiplying by a large amount, followed by another spin regardless of the outcome. The probability of a kakuhen occurring is determined by a random number generator.
Hence, under this system, it is possible for a player to get a string of consecutive jackpots after the first "hard-earned" one, commonly referred to as "fever mode". Another type of kakuhen system is a special time or ST kakuhen. With these machines, every jackpot earned results in a kakuhen, but in order to earn a payout beyond the first jackpot, the player must hit a certain set of odds within a given number of spins.
When a jackpot does not result in a kakuhen combination, the pachinko machine will enter into jitan (時短, short for 時間短縮 meaning time-reduction) mode, with a much larger number of spins than kakuhen. Under the original payout odds, the center gate widens to make it considerably easier for balls to fall into it; this system is also present in kakuhen.
To compensate for the increase in the number of spins, the digital slot machine produces the final outcomes of each spin faster. ST pachinko machines do not offer this mode; after it ends, the machine spins as in kakuhen. Once no more jackpots have been made, the pachinko machine reverts to its original setting.
Starting in 2007, the majority of Japanese pachinko machines started to include koatari (小当たり, small jackpot) into their payout systems. Koatari is shorter than the normal jackpot and during payout mode the payout gate opens for a short time only, even if no balls go into it. The timing of the opening of the gates is unpredictable, effectively making it a jackpot where the player receives no payout. Koatari jackpots can result in a kakuhen as per normal operation, depending on the payout scheme of the machine in question. The main purpose of koatari is so that pachinko manufacturers can offer payout schemes that appear to be largely favorable to customers, without losing any long-term profit.
In addition to being able to offer higher kakuhen percentages, this made it possible for manufacturers to design battle-type machines. Unlike old-fashioned pachinko machines that offer a full payout or a kakuhen for any type of jackpot earned, these machines require players to hit a kakuhen jackpot with a certain probability in order to get a full payout. This is orchestrated by the player entering into "battle", where the player, in accordance with the item that the machine is based on, must "defeat" a certain enemy or foe in order to earn another kakuhen. If the player loses, it means that a normal koatari has been hit and the machine enters into jitan' mode.
Another reason for incorporating every koatari is that they have made it possible for a machine to go into kakuhen mode without the player's knowledge. This is referred to as senpuku (潜伏 'hidden') kakuhen because it doesn't occur in any of the jackpot modes. A player sitting at a used pachinko machine offering the number 1 in x chance of hitting a jackpot in normal mode can hit it within x spins easily because the previous player did not realize that the machine was in senpuku. This induces players to keep playing their machines, even though they may still be in normal mode. Japanese pachinko players have not shown significant signs of protest in response to the incorporation of koatari; on the contrary, battle-type pachinko machines have become a major part of most parlors.
Winnings take the form of additional balls, which players may either use to keep playing or exchange for prizes (景品 keihin). When players wish to exchange their winnings, they must call a parlor staff member by using a call button located at the top of their station. The staff member will then carry the player's balls to an automated counter to see how many balls they have.
After recording the number of balls the player won and the number of the machine they used, the staff member will then give the player a voucher or card with the number of balls stored in it. The player then hands it in at the parlor's exchange center to get their prizes. Among the array of prizes available, there will invariably be an item known as the "special prize" (特殊景品 tokushu keihin: typically a small silver or gold novelty item encased in plastic) that can be sold for cash at an outside establishment in the vicinity of the parlor.
Special prizes are awarded to the player in amounts corresponding to the number of balls won. For example, one special prize worth ¥1500 outside the parlor might be offered to a customer per 400 balls won, assuming each ball originally cost 4 yen. The vast majority of players opt for the maximum number of special prizes offered for their ball total, selecting other prizes only when they have a remaining total too small to receive a special prize.
Besides the special prizes, prizes may be as simple as chocolate bars, pens or cigarette lighters, or as complicated as electronics, bicycles and other items. Under Japanese law, cash cannot be paid out directly for pachinko balls, but there is usually a small establishment located nearby, separate from the game parlor but sometimes in a separate unit as part of the same building, where players may sell special prizes for cash. This is tolerated by the police because the pachinko parlors that pay out goods and special prizes are nominally independent from the shops that buy back the special prizes.
Some pachinko parlors may even give out vouchers for groceries at a nearby supermarket. The yakuza (organized crime) were formerly often involved in prize exchange, but a great deal of police effort beginning in the 1960s and ramping up in the 1990s has largely done away with their influence. In Tokyo, the special prize exchange is handled exclusively by the Tokyo Union Circulation company (known as TUC), which sells pachinko and slot parlors gold slivers in standardized plastic cases, which it buys back from winning customers at its "TUC Shop" windows.
The three-shop system is a system employed by pachinko parlors to exchange for keihin (prizes), usually with items such as cigarette lighters or ball-point pens. These items are carried to a nearby shop and exchanged for cash as a way of circumventing gambling laws.
Many arcade video games in Japan feature pachinko models from different times. They offer more playing time for the same amount of money, and have balls that can be exchanged only for game tokens to play other games in the establishment. As many of these arcades are smoke-free and gambling is removed, they are popular venues for casual players, newcomers, children, and those wanting to play in a more relaxed atmosphere.
In such arcades, thrifty gamblers may spend a small amount on a newly released pachinko model to get a feel for the machine before going to a real parlor. These machines can also be found in many stores, where they pay out capsules containing a prize coupon or store credit.
Gambling is illegal in Japan, but pachinko is regarded as an exception and treated as an amusement activity. Although awarding direct money prizes for it is illegal, parlors may reward players with tokens which can then be sold for cash at nearby exchange centers. With growing public and political pressure in recent years, since passage of Japan's blanket anti-gambling law in the 1990s, police are more active in regulating parlors.
Retired police officers often work in the pachinko industry; critics have pointed out that while this has had a deterrent effect against organized crime, it also means these operators are in a strong position to influence police officers in their favor.
Police tolerate the level of gambling in pachinko parlors. For example, in May 2005, a parlor in Kanagawa Prefecture reported to the local police that someone had counterfeited their tokens and made off with the equivalent of US$60,000 in cash by trading them in at their nearby exchange center. Even with such information proving that this parlor was illegally operating an exchange center, which by law must be independent of the parlor, the police did not shut them down, but tracked down the thief.
It is forbidden for pachinko balls to be removed from a parlor to be used elsewhere. To help prevent this, many parlors have a design or name engraved on each of their balls, inspiring some people to collect pachinko balls with various designs.
A 2014 study showed that pathological gambling tendencies among Japanese adults was 9.04% in men and 1.6% in women, higher than the North American prevalence of 1.6%, particularly for men. In 1999, 29% of players thought of themselves as addicted and needing treatment. Another 30% said they exceeded their budgets and borrowed money to play.
A number of media franchises, mainly the media mix—including Japanese film, anime, manga, television and video game franchises—have generated significant revenue from sales of licensed pachinko and pachislot machines to pachinko parlors and amusement arcades. Sega Sammy Holdings is the owner and/or license holder for the majority of franchises on this list.
|Media franchise||Pachinko debut||Unit sales||Sales revenue (est.)||License holder|
|Fist of the North Star||2002||3,666,346[a]||$18,332 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Neon Genesis Evangelion||2004||2,380,000||$11,900 million||Khara|
|Aladdin||1989||570,000||$2,850 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Beast King||2001||500,000||$2,500 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Onimusha||2005||310,464[b]||$1,552 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Ultraman||2005||194,378[c]||$972 million||Bandai Namco Holdings|
|Ore no Sora (Ja)||2004||193,307[d]||$967 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Monster Hunter||2012||180,014[e]||$900 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Salaryman Kintarō||2002||178,566[f]||$893 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Ring ni Kakero||2007||167,910[g]||$840 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Dynasty Warriors||2016||160,000||$800 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Gamera||2001||135,000||$675 million||Kadokawa Daiei Studio|
|Eureka Seven||2009||130,000||$650 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Monogatari||2013||127,314[h]||$637 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Resident Evil||2013||104,000||$520 million||Capcom|
|Popeye||2004||101,770||$509 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Seven Samurai||2009||94,000||$470 million||Toho|
|Devil May Cry||2007||88,723[i]||$444 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|The Genie Family||2004||80,954[j]||$405 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Kaze no Yojimbo||2003||76,464[k]||$382 million||Pierrot|
|Kaiji||2005||72,701[l]||$364 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Code Geass||2012||64,988[m]||$284 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Umi Monogatari||2006||63,924||$320 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Spider-Man||2006||61,533[n]||$308 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Tomb Raider||2007||60,000||$300 million||Square Enix|
|Choro-Q||2005||57,995||$290 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Ashita no Joe||2010||53,496[o]||$267 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Sengoku Basara||2011||52,000||$260 million||Capcom|
|Urusei Yatsura||2007||44,385[p]||$222 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Sakura Wars||2007||41,488||$207.4 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Sakigake!! Otokojuku||2007||41,318[q]||$206.6 million||Shueisha|
|Gundam||2014||37,000||$185 million||Bandai Namco Holdings|
|Kidō Shinsengumi Moeyo Ken||2009||34,928||$174.6 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Ghost in the Shell||2013||33,000||$165 million||Kodansha|
|Tekken||2014||33,000||$165 million||Bandai Namco Holdings|
|Momotaro Dentetsu||2009||31,943||$159.7 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Gatchaman||2010||31,550[r]||$157.8 million||Tatsunoko Production|
|Star of the Giants||2004||30,050||$150.3 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Terminator||2004||30,000||$150 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Nogaremono Orin (Ja)||2009||29,564||$147.8 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Kamen Rider||2007||29,173||$145.9 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Yakuza||2011||29,011[s]||$145.1 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Dynasty Warriors||2007||27,000||$135 million||Koei Tecmo|
|Blood+||2016||25,335||$126.7 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Kaitō Tenshi Twin Angel||2007||22,457[t]||$112.3 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|Jet Set Radio||2004||22,000||$110 million||Sega Sammy Holdings|
|King Kong||2009||21,000||$105 million||Fields Corporation|
- Bean machine
- Pachinko allocation
- Plinko, a game similar to pachinko, featured on the American game show The Price Is Right
- Visual Pinball, a software game engine for creating computer game simulations of pachinko and pinball machines
- The Wall, an American game show, features a four-story-high pegboard wall similar to Plinko and Pachinko
- Sega Sammy's Fist of the North Star pachinko & arcade unit sales:
- Hokuto no Ken – 2,972,296
- Up until March 2017 – 2.74 million
- April 2017 to March 2018 – 140,175
- Pachislot Hokuto No Ken: Syura no kuni hen Rasetsu ver. (May–June 2018) – 7,448
- Pachinko CR Hokuto No Ken 7: Hyakuretsuranbu (June 2018 to March 2019) – 24,801
- Pachislot Hokuto No Ken: Tensho (November–December 2019) – 59,872
- Sōten no Ken – 471,047
- Hokuto Musō – 223,003
- Hokuto no Ken – 2,972,296
- Onimusha 3 pachislot machine sold 69,341 units in the fiscal year ended March 2005, and 51,097 units between April 2005 and March 2006. Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams pachislot machine sold 90,000 units. Pachislot Shin-Onimusha Sairin sold 41,060 units. Pachislot Onimusha3 Jikuu Tenshou sold 25,966 units. Pachinko Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams sold 33,000 units.
- 77,378 units between September 2005 and March 2006. 117,000 between April 2013 and December 2019.
- 30,245 pachinko units. 38,062 Spirit of Young Justice pachislot units. 125,000 other pachislot units.
- Pachislot Monster Hunter sold 95,529 units. Other Monster Hunter pachislot machines sold 37,000 units. Pachinko CR Monster Hunter sold 32,430 units. Pachinko CR Monster Hunter 4 sold 15,055 units.
- 136,000 sales up until 2014. 42,566 sales during January–March 2015.
- 18,837 units between April 2006 and March 2007. 52,180 units between April 2007 and March 2008. 36,039 units between September 2010 and March 2011. 35,223 units between May 2011 and March 2012. 25,631 units between September 2012 and March 2013.
- Monogatari series:
- 48,723 Devil May Cry 3 units. 25,000 Devil May Cry 4 units. 15,000 Devil May Cry X units.
- 60,089 sales during fiscal year between April 2004 to March 2005. 10,855 sales between April 2004 and March 2005. 10,010 sales in March 2015.
- Kaze no Yojimbo sold 53,000 units. Kaze no Yojimbo 2 sold 23,464 units.
- 29,000 Kaiji units. 18,235 Kaiji 2 units. 25,466 Kaiji 3 units.
- 31,111 sales up until March 2013. 25,750 sales between May 2016 and March 2017. 8,127 sales during January–March 2018.
- 39,000 units between October 2006 and March 2007, 22,533 units between September 2010 and March 2011.
- 37,132 Pachislot Tomorrow's Joe sales during January–March 2010. 16,364 Pachinko CR Tomorrow's Joe sales between July 2015 and March 2016.
- 27,542 units between May 2007 and March 2008. 16,843 units between July 2009 and March 2010.
- Sakigake!! Otokojuku sold 17,000 units. Pachislot Sakigake Otokojuku sold 24,318 units.
- 10,453 units between September 2006 and March 2007. 21,097 units between August 2010 and March 2011.
- 24,252 CR Ryu ga Gotoku Kenzan pachinko sales between December 2011 and March 2012. 4,759 Pachislot Ryu ga Gotoku OF THE END pachislot sales between November 2015 and March 2016.
- 5,920 units in March 2009. 16,537 units between October 2011 and March 2012.
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- FY Ended March 2013: Full Year Results Presentation (PDF). Sega Sammy Holdings. 13 May 2013. pp. 13–14.
- FY Ended March 2016: Full Year Results Presentation (PDF). Sega Sammy Holdings. 16 May 2016. pp. 13–14.
- FY 2011: Full Year Results Presentation (PDF). Sega Sammy Holdings. 16 May 2011. pp. 15–16.
- FY Ended March 2014: Full Year Results Presentation (PDF). Sega Sammy Holdings. 12 May 2014. pp. 13–14.
- FY Ended March 2017: Full Year Results Presentation (PDF). Sega Sammy Holdings. 15 May 2017. p. 13.
- FY Ended March 2015: Full Year Results Presentation (PDF). Sega Sammy Holdings. 12 May 2015. pp. 12–13.
- Fiscal Year Ended March 2007: Full Year Results (PDF). Sega Sammy Holdings. 14 May 2007. p. 9.
- FY 2008: Full Year Results (PDF). Sega Sammy Holdings. 15 May 2008. p. 11.
- FY Ended March 2012: Full Year Results Presentation (PDF). Sega Sammy Holdings. 14 May 2012. pp. 12–13.
- "FY Ending March 2019 3rd Quarter Appendix" (PDF). Investor Relations. Sega Sammy Holdings. 5 February 2019. p. 7. Retrieved 1 April 2019.
- Fiscal Year 2009: Full Year Results (PDF). Sega Sammy Holdings. 14 May 2009. pp. 11–12.
- Fiscal Year 2010: Full Year Earnings Presentation (PDF). Sega Sammy Holdings. 17 May 2010. pp. 11–12.