Happy Times at the Races

Horse racing’s a quintessentially Japanese pastime, as Japanese as baseball, golf and apple pie.

OK, not apple pie.

But horse racing, baseball and golf are all very Japanese and the peculiarities of their Japanese incarnations show what Japaneseness is.

This monstrosity is Star Horse 3. In Japan, horse racing = gambling. True everywhere, but especially true when the only things you can legally bet on are horse racing, bicycle racing, motorbicycle racing and of course powerboat racing.

So what we have here is a gambling machine.

But wait! Yes, horse racing’s OK for gambling, but videogames aren’t, regardless of subject matter. So how are people betting? Welcome to the world of medal games…

Medal games are games where you buy medals, put them in a machine, maybe win more medals, then put those the machine until you’ve lost all your medals.

The banks of individual Star Horse consoles have cushioned seats, built-in ashtrays, cup holders and power outlets. The set-ups are luxurious, but don’t be fooled: it’s Loserville – the dark end of a late-night basement dotted with suited men who either don’t have anywhere better to go, or do.

And the seats hide you – and hide everyone else from you. Medal gambling’s a game for solitary down-and-outs surviving on the weak fumes of hope that linger when you’ve shut away your real life. Seeing another slumping sadsack’s only going to remind you that you exist, which would be the worst thing that could happen.

Well, I didn’t actually play it. Perhaps it’s a lot of fun!

Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people