Japanese women crack male domain of pinball

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

December 01, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- On a street of stolidly upper-middle-class apartments, a shop window is filled with familiar Tokyo icons: Revlon lipsticks, Shiseido skin creams, Christian Dior scarves and Issey Miyake belts.

Inside, the ceiling is painted with angels and cherubs. French impressionist prints line the walls. A "relaxation room" at the rear is lined with gilt-edged mirrors, makeup lights and hair driers. A massage chair gives off the sound of birds chirping and the fragrance of lilacs.

Is this any way to run a pinball joint?

It is if you want in on one of the last shreds of economic growth not yet touched by Japan's worst slowdown since World War II.

Pachinko, Japan's ubiquitous macho demimonde of vertical pinball machines, shrieking space-rocket sounds and screaming rock music, ceased being a men-only pastime decades ago, about the time housewives discovered what washing machines and vacuum cleaners could do for their afternoons.

But it was only this year that pachinko operators got serious about cashing in on women's interest.

"There hasn't been any growth in men players in 11 years," says Taro Komoto, manager of a chain that recently opened a parlor named Swan Flower Gallery.

"Women kept coming in bigger numbers even though the whole atmosphere and all the prizes were for men," he says. "I guess we decided to start catering more to the growth part of our business."

"It's no longer just housewives," he adds. "Women stop on the way home from work. Their jobs give them the two things it takes to get hooked on pachinko -- incomes and tensions."

Not only pachinko.

Everywhere in Japanese life, women are taking up activities once either restricted to men or dominated by them for centuries.

A few women used to stand out at Tokyo race tracks. Today track managers estimate that women make up a fifth of their Sunday crowds, and nearly as much of their weekday after-work crowds.

Tracks invested heavily to make their premises more attractive to women, but managers say the new customers are only good for admission tickets and seldom put down more than a few minimum $3 bets.

Kendo -- a violent Japanese form of fencing so tied to ancient samurai warfare that Gen. Douglas MacArthur banned it during the U.S. Occupation after World War II -- was in decline until a rush of women reinvigorated it a few years ago.

Kendo fencing is so rough that participants wear not only a mask, padded gloves and chest protector but also five layers of quilted padding to cover their thighs. In the 1991 screenings, 17,000 of the newcomers who won the entry rank of Level 6 "dan" were women, about a third of the total.

For many women, one of Kendo's attractions is that it has no women's division and probably is the world's only hand-to-hand combat sport that pits male and female directly against each other.

"Win or lose, I go home feeling equal to any man," says Sadako Nakanishi, a 27-year-old assistant bond trader who recently was promoted to the second of the six "dan" ranks. "The only way I can get my ranking is to give and take with men." She takes lessons twice a week.

Even sumo, the traditional wrestling that pits two implausibly fat men against each other wearing only loin cloths, has begun to attract a few junior high girls. They have fought for admission to school sumo classes, though the Sumo Association says it has yet to receive an application from an adult female.

But it's at the pachinko parlor that the change in women's pastimes is having its most revolutionary impact.

For more than two decades, operators spent wildly to outdo each other with ever-louder sound systems, gaudier entrances and more-macho names. "Montana" and "Clint Eastwood" and "Alcatraz" are names that have gone up in lights in Tokyo.

Places like that still abound.

But the newest trends in pinball joints are softness and intimacy.

Some of the new parlors don't even put the word "pachinko" over the door. Several call themselves "galleries" rather than parlors.

Just in case men don't get the point, signs inside some "galleries" warn that males will be asked to leave if they stay too long, sit down in front of a machine or ogle women customers.

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