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Kihara: “Japanese Still Think Poker is Five-Card Draw with No Betting”
Despite winning Japan's first WSOP bracelet back in 2012 and conducting dozen of interviews for newspapers, television and radio, Naoya Kihara says most people in Japan don’t know much about poker.
“People [in Japan] think poker is still five-card draw, and that there’s no bets in it,” Kihara said. “Just draw and then see the hand and then ‘I win,’ or ‘I lose.’”
“Almost 98 percent of Japanese think that poker is like that game. When I say I’m poker pro, they think that I know how to discard, how to chose the hand. They think that poker is just 95 percent luck and 5 percent skill just to discard something. Of course it’s not!”
But the mentality on poker is slowly changing thanks in part to the rise of “Amusement Poker” in Japan. Despite talks to legalize casinos, gambling is currently illegal in Japan.
“If the players pay money and get money, then it’s illegal,” Kihara said. “If players pay money for the bar or something, then no cash back, it’s OK. If it’s a freeroll, players pay nothing, and get cash back it’s also OK. But paying money and getting money back is illegal.”
Amusement Poker Still King in Japan
It’s in that legal loophole that Amusement Poker thrives.
“They collect money from the customers, the players, then they make [a point system],” Kihara said. “Then the winner of the [season] gets a package for Macau or something like that. Police say it’s ok.”
Kihara said these rooms started five or six years ago and there were only 20 to 30 players total. Now, Kihara says, the largest room in Japan gets 30 to 40 players every day and 50 to 60 on weekends.
“It’s getting much bigger,” Kihara said.
While some people think legal casinos in Japan will bring along the legalization of poker with it, Kihara is skeptical. The reason: Mahjongg.
“It’s obvious that if they open a poker room in a casino, run by the government. Mahjongg salons would also say, ‘We should be legal,’” Kihara said. “Because of that, it completely makes no sense to me, legalized poker in Japan. I don’t think it’s going to be legal.”
And while Mahjongg is just as illegal as poker, Kihara says it’s too widespread in Japan for anyone to stop.
“There are already too many Mahjongg salons in Japan. There are 10,000 Mahjongg salons in Japan. Twenty years ago there were 30,000. It’s crazy,” Kihara said. “Every Mahjongg salon bets money. It’s completely illegal.
“But there are already too many salons, it’s impossible to stop them now. The police guys also play. It’s impossible to make it illegal.”
Casino Poker Would Put Pressure on Illegal Mahjongg Rooms
Kihara says that law enforcement only cracks down on high stakes games but a legal casino could exacerbate the problem.
“The problem is if the casino is legalized,” Kihara said. “[The government] might make Mahjongg more illegal because they need customers for the casino. Maybe, I don’t know.”
This is why Kiahra thinks that poker’s immediate future in Japan lies in Amusement poker.
“[I see legalized poker in the] long future, maybe 20 years, 30 years maybe. I’m not sure, but never in 5 or 6 years,” Kihara said.
“Amusement poker is OK, I think that’s comfortable now in Japan. Amusement poker is real good, they learn poker in Amusement and then they go to Macau or Korea and they play live poker there. It’s real good I think.”