Exploring the Fake and Real Dystopia of Japan's Kowloon City Arcade

By Justin Caffier on August 16, 2017

With at-home and mobile gaming ascending to humdrum everyday life ubiquity, one might understandably assume the video arcade is dead as the dodo. While the quarter-eating cabinet rooms of yesteryear may indeed be gone, their swanky, card-swiping successors are actually doing quite well. Franchises like Dave & Buster's have proven wildly successful as arcades for grownups, pulling the classic arcade from the brink of extinction by pivoting to become a niche nightlife destination that folds live sports and adult beverages into the video gaming experience.

In Japan, however, the arcade never disappeared. The gaming hubs are as popular as ever, adapting with the times to serve customers unique experiences that can’t be replicated on a smartphone or console. According to Keiichi Kouno, the managing director of All Nippon Amusement Machine Operator’s Union, the Japanese arcade industry nets a cool 450 billion yen ($4.1 billion US) per year.

One Tokyo arcade has set itself apart from the typical generic game zones by drawing inspiration from one of the least likely sources: Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City. A lawless complex of vice, destitution and janky architecture for the majority of the 20th century, the Kowloon Walled City crammed more than 50,000 residents into high-rise apartments perched on just 6.4 acres of real estate. In 1993, looking to demolish the hazardous buildings and dispel the crime syndicates that had been festering within them, the Hong Kong government began evicting residents and constructing the park that would take the slums’ place.

I went to visit the arcade, known to locals as the Kawasaki and Anata No Warehouse, to see the painstaking measures made to replicate the vibe of the original Walled City for myself. Walking through the corrugated metal shantytown setting, I heard speakers playing audio of everyday life in Kowloon, including shattering dishes, produce being chopped and arguments in Cantonese. 

While the arcade may be at Disneyland-levels of attention-to-detail, nobody could ever confuse this warehouse with the wholesome theme park given the adult nature of some of those details. Rather than gloss over the sordid history of the original Kowloon, Anata No embraces it. Wall signage advertises unlicensed dentistry. Mannequin representations of prostitutes are barely visible through some of the faux-apartment windows. And a radioactive green facsimile of sewage glows underfoot in the “sewer pipe” exit to the parking lot.

Once past the awesome pseudo-grit of the grand entrance, as I passed the fake street chicken and walked into the rows of games, it became clear that, while Anata No may not be the triad-run den of iniquity of its source material, it’s a similarly depressing dystopia in its own right.

Just one floor above the rhythm game virtuosos and mech suit simulators, rows of both young and old adults sat playing Japan’s reigning king of the gaming sector: Pachinko. The innocuous looking cabinets have players drop ball bearings down pin-filled chutes and chaos theory plays out before the ball is deposited into a winning or losing hole at the bottom. Think “Plinko” from The Price is Right.

One of the few semi-legal forms of gambling—it’s technically classified as “gaming” because players win tokens that can then be traded in for cash—Pachinko parlors can be found in every corner of Japan. Thanks to its ubiquity and relative lack of competition, the game rakes in an ungodly amount of money, more than Vegas, Macau, and Singapore’s gambling revenues combined. The ¥25 trillion (≈$230 billion U.S.) Japanese Pachinko fiends spend each year is greater than 4 percent of the country’s GDP and indicative of a major gambling addiction issue facing the aging nation.

At the end of 2016, Japan’s parliament passed legislation that will legalize other forms of gambling and allow for the construction of casinos. Though the government has made this allowance in the hopes of attracting newly wealthy Chinese tourists, critics fear the addition of casinos will only exacerbate the already unaddressed addiction issues brought about by Pachinko.

The rows of Pachinko players back at the Kowloon arcade filled me with more sadness than any slot machine area on a Vegas casino floor. Though both scenarios have bleary-eyed addicts mindlessly bleeding themselves dry, Japan’s equivocation in reclassifying Pachinko felt unnecessarily dishonest, like some sort of collecting cognitive dissonance the country is projecting so as to not confront the looming crisis. At least in Vegas and the original Walled City, the casinos and triads taking your money were straightforward about it.

Before I’d visited the Kowloon arcade, I’d wondered how such a specifically themed establishment could be profitable and who a homage like this was for. Once inside, and witnessing the legion of technically-not-gambling-gamblers shelling out yen for metal balls, I realized the façade was irrelevant icing for tourists like me. For arcade bigwigs, all that matters is pulling those Pachinko players. And if you build it, no matter what shape that it takes, they will come.

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