Pachinko is a pinball-like arcade game that’s been popular in Japan since the early 1950s. Like pinball, you try to shoot little balls into one of the holes in the machine. You win every ball that lands in a hole, and you can exchange these balls for prizes. Because of Japan’s gambling laws, you can’t directly exchange the balls for money, but there are plenty of places where you can trade or sell your prizes for cash. Since casinos are prohibited in Japan, pachinko parlors have essentially taken their place, where millions of Japanese play the game every year.
With pachinko so popular among Japanese adults, it was once a common sight for a long time to see parents bring their kids with them to the parlors. Things are different nowadays, but I’ve heard that people only stopped doing this back in the 90s, after dozens of incidents where neglected children died while their parents were away in pachinko parlors. (This LA Times article notes that some 30 kids died during a single year between April 1995 and June 1996. According to the article, “They included several who were hit by vehicles in parlor parking lots and an unwatched boy who fell into a water-filled ditch.”)
One of the more infamous cases from the time was the Yukari Yokoyama Missing Persons Incident of 1996 (横山ゆかりちゃん行方不明事件 in Japanese). Yukari was a 4-year-old girl whose parents Yasuo and Mitsuko took her and her baby sister to a pachinko parlor on July 7, 1996 in Gunma Prefecture’s Ota City. While the Yokoyamas split up, with Mitsuko taking their baby daughter and Yasuo going off to play at a machine in a different row, Yukari was left free to roam around and play in the parlor.
Around noon-time, Mitsuko bought some lunch and took the kids outside to the car to eat. Yukari wasn’t very hungry during the time, but decided that she wanted to eat some more after her mother started to play pachinko again. Mitsuko then sent her daughter off with a snack to eat on a near-by couch where she could keep an eye on her. Sometime after 1:40 PM, Yukari came back to her mother and said something about an “uncle”. Mitsuko couldn’t hear very well over the sounds of the pachinko machines though, and Yukari went back over to the couch unheard.
10 minutes later, Mitsuko looked up from her game and noticed that Yukari wasn’t sitting on the couch anymore. When she got up to check where Yukari was sitting, she found the girl’s juice and a half-eaten onigiri (rice ball). Mitsuko then told her husband that Yukari was gone. After searching the parlor’s parking lot, the Yokoyamas reported Yukari missing to a near-by police station around 2:10 PM.
While the police searched the area over the next two days, interviewing customers and other people who were in the parlor that day, one witness reported seeing a little girl around Yukari’s age getting into a white car around the time of her disappearance. There were other people who remembered seeing Yukari in the parlor, but nobody paid any attention to her, and nobody could say whether they saw anybody particularly suspicious either.
A big breakthrough in the case came when the authorities reviewed footage from the parlor’s security cameras. At 1:27 PM, a man about 5 feet, 2 inches (158 cm) came into the parlor and went into a bathroom located in the back of the building. The man, whose most distinguishing features were some sunglasses, sandals, and a hat, came out three minutes later and then began to wander the parlor. At 1:33, while Yukari was sitting on the couch, the man came over and sat next to her. He smoked and talked to Yukari, pointing his finger to the entrance a few times until he got up and left the building at 1:42. Yukari then went over to her mother and mentioned something about “uncle”. After her mother paid her no attention, Yukari walked over to the entrance and left the building, after which the security cameras lost sight of her.
Although the surveillance footage from the parlor was widely shown in the media, and the shady man’s image was included on flyers, Yukari’s abductor has never been identified. Some believe the man might have been a prior customer, or was at least familiar with the parlor’s lay-out. I’ve also read that the man’s sunglasses and hat were meant to work as a disguise, but that might have just been how the guy liked to dress. My two cents is that the guy walked into the parlor, noticed Yukari sitting alone and neglected, and then made a decision right there to lure her outside. A lot of people have condemned Yukari’s parents for how utterly careless they were, and I’ve heard a few offer a completely groundless theory that the kidnapping was a premeditated plan masterminded by the Yokoyamas themselves.
As of February 2016, this case has remained completely cold. If Yukari Yokoyama is still alive today, she would be around 22 or 23. Perhaps, even two decades later, somebody might someday identify the man in the parlor’s surveillance footage. If you’d like to take a look at some of the footage, check out the video below from 1:44 until 3:06.
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