A look at the history of gambling in Japan
First in a two-part series
TOKYO — Illegal gambling has a long history in Japan dating back hundreds of years. The first recorded law that banned gambling was issued in 689AD by the Emperor Jito, who outlawed the board game played with dice suguroku, similar to Backgammon. His predecessor Emperor Tenmu had been known for liking the game. The Empress Koken (718-770) declared that “if you allow gambling the morals of society will collapse and many people will lose their jobs.” Low-ranking officials caught betting during this time were punished with 100 lashes of the whip. Those of higher station were dismissed from their jobs and their property confiscated.
Despite numerous other Imperial edicts prohibiting betting it continued.
In 1648, the Tokugawa shogunate, after closing contact with the Western world in 1633, banned foreign playing cards, but this simply gave rise to Hanafuda (flower cards) decks, used in secret gambling sessions. Itinerant gamblers known as bakuto, ran illicit card and dice games in towns along the old Tokaido road between Tokyo and Osaka. In time, bakuto families gained in power, usually at odds with local governments, but sometimes in conjunction with them. They were the forerunners of the modern yakuza crime syndicates, which expanded greatly after World War II, and diversified into prostitution, drugs, extortion, loan sharking, stock fraud and other such activities. The term “ya-ku-za” referred to a losing hand in card games.