Unsurprisingly, gaming arcades have been on the wane in Japan since their peak in 1986 of 26,000 sites. Thereafter, consoles took arcade games into the home, and miniaturisation took gaming onto your phone. Feeding dozens of 100-yen pieces into a Starblade machine, essentially buying one’s way through difficult levels, as your correspondent once did in Osaka for much of 1992, started to look like a silly option when you could own the thing outright and play it in your lounge.
These days, there are only 4,000 registered arcades in Japan, along with another 9,000 sites too small to count, having less than fifty machines. But with the closure of Anata no Warehouse, a five-storey grunge palace in Kawasaki, modelled on the Walled City of Kowloon, it seems that something has dealt a killing blow to the old gaming palaces.
The culprit is a simple 2% increase in consumption tax (Japan’s VAT). That puts up the cost of the average manga magazine by 0.0006p, hardly anything to write home about, you might think. But Japan’s arcade sector has been struggling for years to maintain its “one-coin” slot machine charges. Whereas the average slot machine in the UK takes pound coins, the nearest equivalent in Japan is the 100-yen piece, which is only worth 71p. Under the old 8% tax, 8 yen of that was already going to the tax man; since 1st October, that now goes up to 10 yen. Or in British terms, Japanese arcade games are only bringing home 63p per play. The next coin up is the 500-yen piece, which would mean each play would cost £3.58.
Put it another way: the arcade sites in Japan have declined not only because of new technologies and habits, but because the games are still charging 1986 prices! The consumption tax is liable to wipe out what little profits were left for suppliers, and is sure to lead to many more giving up the ghost. Anata no Warehouse is probably only the first to shut down.
I wonder, though, whether this will affect pachinko quite so much. Japan’s frightfully dull ball-bearing games are in a class of their own, often seem to be a cover for money-laundering anyway, and feature under-the-counter prizes that can be downgraded at will by site owners. So I expect that pachinko will continue to endure, as it bafflingly has for decades, even as the nature of the 100-yen coin leads to a shake-out in more everyday arcade games.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #195, 2019.