In 2012 Naoya Kihara became the first Japanese player to win a World Series of Poker bracelet, just one of the reasons Japan is on the verge of a poker boom.
Since winning his bracelet Kihara has been signed to a sponsorship deal with Pokerstars and become the premier poker player in his home country.
Live casino gambling, including poker, is illegal in Japan but according to Kihara that might soon change.
“The government knows they can make a lot of money from casinos, and if they legalize it poker is going to get very big in Japan,” Kihara told PokerListings.com at the 2013 PCA.
Kihara is on the front line of the Japanese poker world, a role that was thrust upon him thanks to his success in Las Vegas.
"People in Japan Think Poker is Just Gambling"
Along with the more than half a million dollars he won at the WSOP, Kihara has also garnered widespread media attention in his home country. And Kihara has chosen to use that celebrity as a platform to educate people about what poker's really about.
“Right now people in Japan think poker is just gambling so when I'm on TV I want to explain it better,” said Kihara.
“Poker is a game and you can use it to gamble but the way I play is as an investment business,” he said “Poker is a skill game and I'm trying to tell people in Japan.”
But the skill vs. luck debate isn't what most interested the Japanese media.
“After I won my bracelet a lot of Japanese media contacted me and I think more than five newspapers and more than five magazines wrote about me,” he said.
“Everybody asked me what I'm going to do with the money.
“Poker players know that the money is just your bankroll and you will use it for your next tournaments, but non-poker people think that it's so much money I must be buying a car or a house or something.
“So I've been playing bigger games and more tournaments and I've been able to make myself a bit more popular in Japanese poker,” said Kihara.
And while the poker community in Japan is still small it is growing, thanks to celebrities like Kihara as well as the country's first poker forum.
“In Japan the online poker community is not so big but we do have a poker forum, like Two Plus Two, and that's helping grow the community,” said Kihara.
Amusement Poker Taking Off in Japan
Even though casino gambling is illegal in Japan they have found a workaround in the form of the slot machine-like game Pachinko.
An estimated $380 billion industry, Pachinko players can't actually win money directly, but rather win tokens or prizes that can be taken to another location and redeemed for cash.
Similarly, Kihara said that there is something called “Amusement Poker” in Japan whereby players can compete in poker tournaments and win prizes.
Some tournaments will win you a free seat to the next amusement poker event, or a discount on food or beverages at the tournament, both of which are completely legal.
Other events award bigger prizes like seats to real-money tournaments in Macau. According to Kihara the bigger the prize, the closer the event comes to breaking the law.
“Winning seats to live events in Macau is a bit of a gray area in Japan but the police say it's okay as long it's not too big,” explained Kihara.
The popularity of amusement poker points to a demand that would be more than satisfied by legal casino games.
“Ten years ago there was almost no poker in Japan but even five or six years ago it started to get more popular and more Japanese people started playing,” he said.
“If casinos are legalized in Japan it's going to get even bigger.”