Date: 16th January, 2013
Report by: John
When we talk about the production of pinball machines, we usually think exclusively of those made in the USA. However, there was a short period of history when Sega - a shortening of the name Service Games - produced its own pinballs at their factory in Tokyo, Japan in the 1970s, under the brand name Sega Enterprises Ltd.
A total of 25 pinballs were produced from 1971 to 1979 and they were mainly for the local market in Japan.
In December 2012, I met Bruce Tsuji - the director of the Japan Game Museum (JGM) to talk about the history of Japanese-made pinballs. He shared his knowledge and experience of these forgotten games with me
John: As a pinball lover, I had no idea about these Japanese-made pinballs. Can you tell us a little about their history?
Bruce: Sega Japan was producing its own pinballs locally for two short periods of time; 1971-1973 and 1976-1979. The 1970s were the golden age of Japanese-made pinballs. Up until that time, most of the pinballs were made in the USA and the prices were very high. In a typical amusement centre it would cost ￥50 per game for American-made pinballs. This was simply not affordable for most Japanese at that time.
As a result, Sega Japan started to produce a series of electromechanical pinballs in 1971. The price of Sega pinballs was only ￥30 per game, and so these became very popular in Japanese society.
Bruce: Sega's pinballs were different from other US-made pinballs in terms of design and technology. Sega's pinballs were well designed and very easy for maintenance, provided you have fully acquired all the necessary knowledge and skills.
However, Sega Japan did not provide good support in this area. Therefore, most of their pinballs could not be kept in good working condition. As a result, most of the amusement centres gradually removed those pinballs because they could not earn significant profits from them.
I do feel that Sega Japan was good in innovation and technology, but was not good in post-production service and support. I believe this was the root cause of the failure of the pinball business in Japan.
Bruce: My museum has a total of eight fully-functional Sega EM pinballs and one backbox (Robin Hood). In addition, there is a spare 'Carnival' and two spare 'Surfing' pinballs (which can be used for trade-ins if the opportunities arise). I am still on the way to collecting the remaining titles, but it is not easy, since they are 'dinosaurs'.
Bruce: The game called 'Sapporo' is a special one, since it is commemorates the Winter Olympics held in Sapporo in 1972. As far as I know, Sega Japan only keeps one Sapporo pinball which they use for exhibition purposes.
Bruce: Should any of the unique parts in the eight EM pinballs become non-functional, I can still get them from the three spare machines at the JGM. So far, they have remained fully functional without any problems - the durability of Sega pinballs is greater than you might think.
Bruce: As a Japanese native and a pinball lover, I am proud of the golden age of Sega pinballs in 1970s. However, this piece of history has been slowly forgotten by most of us. I just want to ensure the museum can keep a record of this golden age.
Sega pinballs are unlike US-made pinballs. It is not difficult to have one US-made pinball as long as you have the money. Sega pinballs, however, are very rare now. I believe that the JGM is the only location where you can both see and play them.
Bruce: It is simple, just come and play!
Running a museum is definitely not a profitable business. I hope that the museum can continue its operations from one generation to the next. However, this requires a break-even in cash flow so that it can cover its operation expenses. I am not money-minded, but it is something to be realistic about.
For more information about the Japanese Sega pinball machines, see the Japan Game Museum website.
© Pinball News 2013