General and Online Gambling Laws in Japan

Gambling and betting are both very popular in Japan, though only certain forms are lawful. Specifically, the forms authorised are lottery, scratch cards, pari-mutuel betting on horse racing, keirin (bicycle racing), powerboat racing (kyōtei), and autorace (motorcycles), and soccer toto wagers on J-League. All other forms are prohibited under Chapter 23 of the Japanese Penal Code.

While the penalties for unlawful betting are harsh, the law is rarely enforced. Nonetheless, a first offense for participating as a player is a petty fine not exceeding ¥500,000. Repeat offenders can be imprisoned up to 3-years. To show an example of how the law is not enforced, I start this article by discussing pachinko. I then discuss online betting from Japan and finally conclude with vast details regarding of our many legal forms of gambling. The goal of this article is to be the most complete guide to Gambling in Japan.

Pachinko Gambling is Widespread

There are no legal casinos in Japan. However, what we do have is pachinko parlours. These are similar to arcade games found elsewhere in the world that are popular with adolescents playing games to win tickets and then redeeming them for prizes. Here by law you must be age 18+ to play and the machines are used strictly for gambling. The video below explains in English how pachinko works.

Places similar to the one showed in the video are available all over the country – to the tune of perhaps almost 15,000 pachinko parlours nationwide. These are allowed under the law as an amusement, but gambling on them is banned. Despite this, as shown in the video, the balls won are redeemable for prizes or tokens. Those redeeming tokens take them to an offsite location for cash payment.

Though gambling pachinko is illegal, how the system works is common knowledge and is mostly ignored by the police. According to Wikipedia Entry: Pachinko a parlour in Kanagawa prefecture had their tokens counterfeited and redeemed. Upon calling the police and admitting to having an illegal redemption centre, the police did nothing to the parlour and only worked to track the thief.

Pachinko gambling is a big money business. About 8-years ago (in 2005), the government estimated annual pachinko gambling volume had reached ¥29 trillion (US$378 billion). This is triple the amount of all legal gambling in Japan combined including lottery, horse racing, soccer toto and public sport. This should about tell you about what you need to know regarding our gambling law.

We have many underground casinos, local bookies and card games. Even with poker illegal, the Everest Poker Japan Cup was held here n 2007, and the All-Japan Poker Championship was co-organized by a local newspaper. Online gambling is also widespread. The laws are on the books, but little is done to go after casual gamblers. In the rare times action is taken, it is only a petty fine for the first offense.

Online Betting in Japan

The Japanese government allows online betting for lottery, soccer toto, and public sport. However, this is only for pari-mutuel betting with the official channels. For those interesting in betting fixed odds, making in-play wagers, or playing casino, poker or bingo this is possible using foreign betting sites. For example, at www.bet365.com it is possible to open an account using a Japanese home address. You can also keep your account balance in Japanese Yen. From this website you can wager sports, horse races, online poker, casino and bingo and much more.

For sports betting, the wagering options are many. Bet365 offers betting on nearly every sports league and sport played around the world. This includes Japanese sports. Odds on J-League (J1), J-League division 2 (J2), Nabisco Cup, Emperors Cup and Super Cup soccer are available. You can also find NPB baseball betting and even JB League and JBL League basketball.

The one sport they don’t cover enough of is Japanese volleyball. If you are interested in betting Japan V-Premiere League or any competition our national team participates in I suggest www.bwin.com. They as well as William Hill, Blue Square, and countless other UK based companies have online betting in Japanese Yen (JPY).

These gambling sites clearly display the available deposit and withdrawal options for Japan. It is possible to deposit in Japanese yen (JPY) using your VISA, MasterCard credit card or VISA Electron
debit card via the online e-wallet Skrill. Other e-wallets supported in Japan include NETELLER, EntroPay, and Click2Pay.

Legal Gambling in Japan

In the remainder of this article I’ll discuss the many forms of fully legal gambling Japan. If you are also interested in watching a video covering gambling, I’ve included one in English below.

To explain this video quickly: the first terminal shown is our standard numbers lottery. The terminal shown at the 40 second mark sells multiple lotteries and scratch cards. At the 50 second mark you can see boat racing. At about the 1:27 mark you’ll see one of our legal horse racing tracks.

Lottery in Japan

Lottery had existed here since around 1630 but was banned in 1842. The majority of our current gambling laws stem from 1907 legislation where lottery remained prohibited. In 1937, war concern left our government with an urgent need for funds. In response, they passed the Temporary Funds Adjustment Act (TFAA) of 1937 which created a national lottery. While repealed the following year, the same emergency need for funds followed World War II. This created another national lottery beginning in October 1945.

The legal basis for allowing permanent lotteries came about with two statues. The ability to legalise it is included in the Government Finance Act (Act No. 109 of 1948). The Lottery Voucher Act (Act No. 144 of 1948) did just that – effective 12 July 1948. We abolished the government ran lottery in 1954 putting it in the hands of our local governments. In 1964, we moved to regulate lottery nationally and created the Japan Lottery Association.

Today, authorized lotteries are called takarakuji (宝くじ). These lotteries are the most popular form of legal Japanese gambling. For those speaking our language you can learn all about them at the official takarakuji website. In this article I provide only a brief overview of the most popular national wide lotteries. Other lotteries (not mentioned) are run by banks, charities and by prefectures or major cities.

Nationwide Japanese Lotteries (Takarakuji)

  • Year-end Jumbo Lottery – (Nenmatsu Jumbo Takarakuji) – is the largest lottery not only in Japan but in all of Asia. Tickets costing ¥300 are pre-printed so the exact number of winners is known in advanced. Tickets use numbers 0-9 for its 6 numbers and also has a group number (1-68). The drawing is held on New Year’s Eve. For 2012, there were 68 first place winners of 400 million yen who had the exact match 195280-61. The 204 winners of 30 million yen are those who held one before (195279-61), one after (195281-61) and all correct except the bonus (195280-XX). There are smaller prizes for third, fourth, fifth and sixth place.
  • Jumbo Lottery – there are 4 other Jumbo lotteries each year that work the same as the one described above. Three have long been held which are Green held in March, Dream held in June, and Summer held in August. One additional Jumbo has been added where the proceeds go to an earthquake relief fund. 2013 scheduling for that added draw is still pending.
  • Mini Lotto – released in 1999, Mini Lotto is a weekly game drawn on Tuesdays costing ¥200 per ticket. There are 5 slots that and a bonus slot. For each you must select a number up to 31. If you get all correct and the bonus you win the jackpot which is generally between ¥6 million and ¥14 million. If you get 4 of 5 numbers and the bonus correct you win about ¥150,000. If you do the same without the bonus you win about ¥10,000. Also, 3 of 5 correct pays ¥1000.
  • Lot 6 – released in 2000, works similar to Mini Lotto. However, it is drawn twice a week on Monday and Thursday. The cost is ¥200 per wager. The major differences are this uses an extra slot and the numbers range up to 43. That’s six numbers 1-43 and a bonus number. This pays 5 places. The first place jackpot can be up to ¥1 billion with carryover but this is rare. If there are winners on back-to-back weeks the prize may only be ¥60 million. Big jackpots do happen. The December 24, 2012 draw paid ¥374.4 million as there were no winners the previous two draws.
  • Numbers 3 – this, along with Numbers 4, is the standard daily numbers game in Japan. You pick three numbers (1-9) at a cost of ¥200 per wager. The prizes vary a lot. All three in exact order is often around ¥80,000, the box (any order) ranges ¥12,000 to ¥30,000 for most draws. There are also prizes for first two, first two any order, and mini which is last two in exact order.
  • Numbers 4 – All details regarding this lottery are the exact same as the above except it is played with 4 numbers not 3. The prizes paid are all four exact order (straight), all four any (box), first three exact (set-straight) and first three any (set-box). The prizes vary a lot. In January 2013 first ranged from ¥723,000 to ¥1.3 million.
  • Scratch Cards – scratch cards, also called instant lotto have been offered in Japan since 1984. They can be purchased at nationwide lottery stands. Most versions including Premium Scratch, Mrs. Happy Link, Puzzles Scratch and Scratch Lottery cost ¥200 per ticket. There are ¥100 tickets such as Lucky 3. Playing involves simply scratching the card and then looking at the instructions on it to see if you’ve won.

The takarakuji lotteries are strictly considered an amusement by Japanese law. This means there are no age limits or taxes owed on winnings. Even children can purchase tickets. Also by law, you must be a bona fide resident of Japan to collect a prize. Tickets are not sold abroad.

Sports Toto

Sports betting was legalised in Japan under the Sports Promotion Voting Act , commonly known as SPV, on 10 May 1998. This act gave authority to the Ministry of Education, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) to be the regulator of soccer betting in Japan. The purpose of this was to bring funding to Japanese sports in order to improve Japan’s competiveness in world competitions and promote sports as an essential life-habit throughout the nation.

The only form of betting that has been allowed under SPV is J-League Soccer Pools (also known as sport toto and as soccer toto). This exclusively allows for betting on professional Japanese soccer (J1, J2, Emperors Cup and Nabisco Cup matches).

Today, there are many authorized versions of sports toto available. Toto, Toto Mini, Toto Goal 3 and Toto Goal 2 involve making your own selections. These function just the same as pari-mutuel sports betting using a totalisator. The other forms of sports toto are under the brand name Big. These versions, while using Japanese soccer matches to determine the results, are lotteries where the computer generates selections at random. Each form of toto is explained below.

Toto
The standard toto is essentially what European betting sites call accumulators. There are 13 Japanese soccer matches listed on the card. Players make selections of home (1), draw (0) or away (2). Picking all correct on a ¥100 wager the prize is 100 million yen or can be up to 200 million yen if there is carryover. It is also possible to use the card to play singles, doubles and trebles. The payout for winning all games selected is determined by the amounts others have wagered and how much others have won.

Mini Toto
This is a mini version of the soccer toto mentioned above. The difference: there are 9 games to choose from and 5 are selected. These are divided into different wagers using what is elsewhere referred to as round robin betting (or boxed). This means it is still possible to win a small return even if one of your five selections has lost.

There are many places to purchase Toto and Big tickets. Online these are available from the official toto website, toto Rakuten and Yahoo! toto. Bank account holders of Japan Net Bank, Rakuten Bank and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) can purchase toto tickets at the ATM. You can find them at convenience stores including Lawson, FamilyMart, Circle K, 7-Eleven and Ministop. In major cities terminals are also available.

The important laws for players to be concerned with are simple. You must be age 19+ to purchase tickets, there is no tax on winnings and tickets are not sold in convenience stores on game days. There are many other laws that involve who can play. To however state it simply: if you don’t work in soccer, don’t work for the government, and are at least age 19 – you are eligible to play.

Public Sports – Kōei kyōgi

There are four public sports (kōei kyōgi) allowed for pari-mutuel betting under Japanese law. These are horse racing (keiba), keirin (bicycle racing), powerboat racing (kyōtei), and autorace (asphalt speedway motorcycle racing). These are wagered using betting pools where 75% of the prize pool is returned to gamblers using a totalisator (tote-board) system.

Age Limit and Taxes on Public Sport
Unlike lottery which is exempt, income tax can also be owed on returns from racing tote. This mostly applies to gamblers with over ¥500,000 per year in dividends. The tax law here is very complex. For most it is not possible to deduct tickets from losing races against tickets from winning races. The rates depend on a person’s other income and resident status. It is best to check with an accountant (kaikeishi) for tax advice. Also the age limit for this form of gambling is higher. While lottery has no age limit, pachinko is 18+, and soccer toto 19+, here you must be age 20+ to purchase tickets. All this said, I will now provide details of each form of public sport.

Horse racing (Keiba)

Horse racing has a long history in Japan. Since at least early-eight-century horse races were conducted at major shrines and temples featuring competition among samurai. The May race at Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto began in the eleventh century and over 800 years later is still an annual event. As for modern horse racing, this was introduced by foreigners living in Yokohama in 1861. In 1907 it became a legal form of betting. However, during the latter part of World War II racing was suspended. It returned with the passing of the Horse Racing Law (July 13, 1948, Law No. 158).

Today this is a big money gambling business bet on legal totes. There are two organisers. The Japan Racing Association (JRA) oversees ten tracks. Five of their tracks host the majority of Japan’s 24 annual Grade I (G1) races – most of which gather major international attention. The second organiser is the National Association of Racing (NAR) which oversees local racing operated by prefectures or large cities. There are several dozen racecourses nationwide that combine to host more than 21,000 races annually.

Betting Japanese Horse Racing

JRA has an English version website that is extremely comprehensive. You can learn all about horse racing in Japan and can even read their how to bet guide (in English). To explain quickly: each track features different types of wagers. In total there are ten types. A very quick rundown of each is as follow.

  1. Win – this is a straight wager on which horse will win.
  2. Place – for races with 8 or more horses this bet wins if your selection finishes in the top-three. For races with 6 or 7 horses it wins if your selection finishes in the top-two.
  3. Quinella – This wager is available for races with 9 or more runners. You select which two you feel will come in the top two. If you’re correct (any order) your bet wins.
  4. Bracket Quinella – Same as above except you can only select horses grouped together on the ticket.
  5. Quinella Place – This is the same as quinella except your bet wins if your two selections both finish anywhere in the top 3.
  6. Trio – You pick three horses in a race to finish in the top 3. Any order wins but you need all three selections to place
  7. Exacta – Pick which horse will finish first and which will finish second. You need to be correct in exact order to win.
  8. Bracket Exacta – This is the same as above but you can only select horses that are grouped together on the ticket.
  9. Trifecta – Same as Bracket Exacta but you pick the top 3 finishers instead of top two. All must win in exact order selected
  10. Pick 5 – this is a 5-fold accumulator. To win you must pick all five winners from 5 designated races.

Understand, horse race betting in Japan is strictly done as pari-mutuel tote betting. In other words, it is a betting pool. All races regardless of their track, type, organiser, grade or any other factor pay 75% of the betting pool to betting winners. The remaining 25% goes towards paying government taxes, the winners of the race, operating costs etc. and what is left over is the organisers profit. Again this is big money business in Japan. In 2011 JRA races had ¥2.3 trillion in betting turnover and NAR had ¥314.9 billion. In United States dollar (USD) that’s a combined $29.18 billion in annual legal horse race betting turnover.

Most Popular JRA Racecourses (Hosting Grade I)

Below is a list of the five most famous JRA tracks in Japan and the noteworthy races they host.

  • Tokyo Racecourse – built in 1933 and located in Fuchu, Tokyo this is the premier racecourse in Japan. It is home to many famous races including Japan Cup, Japanese Derby, the Asian Mile Challenge’s Yasuda Kinen, Japanese Oaks, Tenno Sho (Autumn), February Stakes and NHK Mile Cup.
  • Nakayama Racecourse – first opened in 1907 but was completely rebuilt in 1990. It is located in Funabashi, Chiba. Noteworthy Grade I races held here include Japanese 2,000 Guineas (Satsuki Sho), Sprinters Stakes, Asahi Hai Futurity Stakes and Nakayama Grand Prix (Arima Kinen). There are also many Grade II and Grade III races and the famous J-Grade I races Nakayama Grand Jump and Nakayama Daishogai.
  • Kyoto Racecourse – located in Kyoto this dirt and jump course opened in 1925 and was rebuilt in 1999. It is home to famous G1 races Tenno Sho Spring, Shuka Sho, Japanese St. Leger (Kikuka Sho), Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Cup and the Mile Championship. Also many G2, G3 and J-Grade II and III races are held here too.
  • Hanshin Racecourse – Located in Takarazuka, Hyogo this racecourse opened in 1949 and underwent major renovations 1999 and 2006. It has two turf courses a dirt course and a jump course. Here famous Grade I races Japanese 1,000 Guineas (Oka Sho), Takarazuka Kinen, Japan Cup Dirt and Hanshin Juvenile Fillies as are Grade II and III and J-Grade II and III races.
  • Chukyo Racecourse – Located in Toyoake, Aichi this course was built and opened in 1994. It has a grass course, a dirt course and a jump course. Its main attraction is the G1 race Takamatsunomiya Kinen which is for horses age 4+.

5 other races course part of the Japan Racing Association (JRA) are Kokura Racecourse in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka and four courses named after their location (for example Sapporo’s track is called Sapporo Racecourse) in Sapporo, Hakodate, Fukushima, Niigata. The many other tracks found in Japan are not JAR but are rather administered by the National Association of Racing (NAR).

Bicycle Racing (Keirin)

Keirin is a form of bicycle racing that has been on Olympic Sport since 2000. This is quite impressive considering it was invented in Japan for the purpose of gambling. It was the Bicycle Racing Act (Act No. 209 of 1948) passed in August 1948 that made pari-mutuel betting on Keirin legal. The first race that bets were taken on came three months later in Kitakyushu (then Kokura). The popularity of this sport spread rapidly with other prefectures and large cities soon organising races.

The arenas which Keirin races are held are called Velodromes. As of 2013 there are 47 of these nationwide that operate pari-mutuel tote betting. They are all under the authority of the JKA Foundation which regulates this sport as well as auto race competitions in Japan. Since 2007, betting tickets can be purchased online and can even be purchased with internet banking transfer. This has seen the sale of betting tickets increase resulting in annual turnover exceeding 800 billion yen. If you speak Japanese and live in Japan you can purchase tickets online at www.keirin.jp.

If you’re looking information about how the races works you can find it in Wikipedia entry: Keirin. As far as the betting is concerned: what you need to know is there are 9 cyclists in each race. The wager options are the ones mentioned in the above section on Japan horse race betting. One difference is exacta is called perfecta for keirin betting. There are also special bets they pay large dividends. These are K-3: select the winners of the last three races of the day – K-5: do the same for the last 5 races, and BIG DREAM – select the first two finishers (any order) in each of the day’s final four races. For K-5 and BIG DREAM there is carry over to the next race when there are no winners. For a guide to betting at the track refer to the JKA Guide to Keirin (English Language).

Motorcycle Racing (Ōto Rēsu)

The Japanese version of motorcycle speedway (known in English as auto race) is another sport that started in Japan for the purpose of betting. It was legalised under the Auto Racing Act in May 1950. Five months later the first autorace event took place at Funabashi Autorace Circuit.

This sport had many struggles early that took time to iron out. The flat dirt surface initially used was banned by the government in the 1960’s over safety concerns. This is when we changed to an asphalt course that involved more riders, better bikes and faster speeds. Soon later the sport became ridden with match fixing scandal and was controlled by Yakuza. In 1967, a regulatory body was established and the rules were greatly changed. Now, the days before a race, riders stay in dormitories with more than 500 bikers. They have no communication with the outside world during this period. This odd tradition is what helps maintain the integrity of autorace.

As discussed in the previous section, the JKA Foundation organises both keirin and autorace. The betting markets are the same for both sports and JKA has a guide in English explaining betting details, dynamics of the sport, and even information about circuits. With just over 100 billion yen in pari-mutuel sales annually; autorace appears to be only one-eighth as popular as keirin. This is however a misleading statistic. Keirin has more volume because it has far more venues and races. Autorace draws higher betting volume of the two when looking at betting volume per race.

If you speak Japanese and live in Japan you can find details how to bet online using netbank or standard banking on the official website.

Powerboat Racing (kyōtei)

Kyōtei is high speed boat racing. This Japanese sport was created for the purpose of gambling in June 1951 with the passing of the Motorboat Racing Act. Its first sanction raced for betting purposes took place at Omura Stadium in April 1952. This has become the most wagered sport on a per race basis in Japan for several reasons. First races take place at high speed and are exciting. A typical race last only a couple minutes. Secondly, the sport is extremely well regulated with respected inspectors and over 100 bylaws. Lastly, the sport has more potential for marketing than the others. 10% of its races are female and many are young and attractive. There is even a video game that allows players to compete at the most popular boat-courses.

There are many thousands of kyōtei racers in Japan and the sport has a massive following. Of the many courses there are 24 where races that can be wagered. Online betting is available at www.teleboat.jp and phone accounts can be set up with the same company. Another neat aspect of this sport is much of the proceeds go to the Nippon Foundation who is involved in many charitable projects (a list here). They are co-organiser of the sport along with the Boat Race Promotion Association.

This sport is so well followed that many news stations show tickers of all the race results. You can also find kyōtei results online (including a stream of the ticker), and there are even info-lines that you can phone in for results, weather information, stats and much more for all the major boat courses. This is a fun an exciting sport to follow and wager and an English language kyōtei betting guide is available too.