TOKYO (Reuters) - As stores have closed across Japan during a state of emergency, some pachinko parlours remain defiantly open, sparking concern the noisy gambling halls could undermine the government's fight against the novel coronavirus.
The halls, where players sit back-to-back at long rows of machines amid the jangle of bouncing steel balls and garish flashing lights, are a fixture on many Japanese streets and are popular with young people, the underemployed and hardcore gamblers.
"I think this is actually more crowded than usual," Kensuke Takao, a 22-year-old restaurant worker, said at a pachinko parlour in Tokyo's Hatagaya district. "I suppose everybody doesn't have jobs or places to go other than these pachinko parlours, which are still open."
Even as Japan imposed a state of emergency in Tokyo and six other areas on April 7, then extended it to the nation last week, some parlours have jangled away as usual.
The parlours are found all over Japan, creating a headache for officials trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
"We would like to consider a next step against pachinko parlours that do not comply, such as a public announcement," Japanese Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters this week.
Through Thursday, the prefecture of Osaka had asked 11 pachinko parlours to close that remained open, a government official said. The governor plans to publicly announce their names later Friday, the official said.
Japan's two major pachinko chains, Maruhan and Dynam, told Reuters that more than a half of their hundreds of branches are already closed, or will be shut down by the weekend. Others remain open with precautionary measures in place.
"Places that are touched a lot, such as the pachinko machines, slot machines and lockers, are wiped down with alcohol," a Dynam spokesman said. "The conditions at each location vary, so social distancing measures are left to the individual parlours."
Though gambling is strictly controlled in Japan, pachinko - a vertical, pinball-like game that pays out in ball bearings - skirts the rules. Players exchange the balls for prize tokens, which can be redeemed for cash.
Popularity has been dropping, however. The industry has shrunk to about 20 trillion yen ($185.5 billion) from about 30 trillion yen a decade ago, according to Japan Productivity Center, which compiles statistics on the leisure sector.
Although some pachinko customers said the coronavirus crisis could warrant a shutdown, parlour owners warned that they might not be able to reopen.
"There's pressure from officials and society, but some owners cannot easily shut down, because our businesses might face risks of bankruptcy if the situation drags on," one owner of a few parlours outside Tokyo told Reuters, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.
($1 = 107.8100 yen)
(Reporting by Hideto Sakai, Jack Tarrant and Tim Kelly; writing by Ju-min Park; editing by Elaine Lies and Gerry Doyle)