Move over Santa Claus. Buzz Lightyear and Rugrats, you're history. Hello Kitty - there's a new tom on the block. This Christmas belongs to a pointy-eared rosy-cheeked yellow ball of fluff called Pikachu - who has conquered the world by stealth and cuteness. John Paul Catton gets lost in Pokedom.


Those who have lived in Japan over the past few years will be familiar with the fuzzy little icon who resides in the Nintendo game and anime show called Pocket Monster (or Pokemon). What's been surprising, though, is the speed with which it has become popular abroad - in the US, Europe, Australia and much of Southeast Asia - and the frenzy of consumerism the Pokephenom has unleashed.

pulinIn the beginning, it was uncertain as to whether Pokemon would be available in the US at all. "Quite honestly, role-playing games, particularly for the Game Boy system, were never popular in the US," remembers Gale Tilden, vice-president of Nintendo product development and acquisition. "We had a real concern that [Pokemon] would be a hard sell for us."

pippiAfter careful discussions between Nintendo executives, Pokemon was introduced through the animated TV show, which aired in September 1998, followed by the introduction of the hand-held games, then trading cards, and finally the movie, opening to scenes eclipsing this summer's Star Wars extravaganza. The film (titled, in a stunning display of imagination Pokemon; The First Movie) took in $25 million in its first two days. Thousands of children across the US skipped school to attend the premiere (because it was on a Wednesday - doh!).

kodakkuThe Pokemon game is based on a staple children's obsession - monsters, 151 of them. The object is to collect as many as you can and engage them in battle with other "trainers," but the unique marketing angle here is that it's a variation on the Tamagochi boom of several years ago. Each cartridge contains a slightly different number of inhabitants, so to play the game, you have to physically hook up your cartridge with another player's by buying a special lead. The trading cards have also proved to be crucial to the sales campaign, as they have become one of the most highly collectible products worldwide, with rare sets being auctioned on the Internet for figures in excess of $100. A deluge of Pokemon-related products has since followed - dolls, watches, sleeping bags, etc. You name it - if it's got Pikachu on it, it'll make a buck. Interestingly enough, the most sought-after items in the US right now are the original Japanese-language versions.

"The most crowded time I've ever seen was summer 1998, during the screening of the first Pokemon movie. That's what we called the Pokemon bakuhatsu (explosion)."

zenigameFun and games
When Pikachu graced the November cover of The New Yorker, it was a sign that the phenomenon was being taken very seriously indeed. The scale of the marketing and merchandising involved was without precedent. A flood of counterfeit trading cards into the US early this summer was referred to the FBI. The TV show is now the top-rated children's show in the world, according to Nielsen Media Research. The Pokemon buzz contributed to the 250% jump in Game Boy sales in the first quarter of 1999, as well as the near-doubling of Nintendo stock since March. Retail sales of Pokemon products worldwide are expected to pass the billion dollar mark at the end of this year.

A taste of the hysteria to come was seen on November 1, when Warner Bros. announced over an LA-based radio station a contest with free tickets to the movie premiere as the prize. Calls came through at the rate of 70,000 a minute, forcing the company to close down its voice mail system.

myu2The fever then spread to Burger King stores across the US, as their largest marketing campaign ever got under way - an expenditure of $22 million. The special meal sets almost resulted in riots, with Burger King outlets crammed with crying children, desperate parents, and avaricious toy collectors all fighting for a piece of the action (how many burgers went uneaten remains unknown). Meanwhile, the boardrooms of rival McDonald's have been resounding with the sound of senior executives kicking themselves. A rock-solid $30 million deal with Disney to promote Toy Story 2 seemed the ultimate dream, but like everybody else, they hadn't figured on the pulling power of pesky little Pikachu.

myuJapanese have been largely bemused by the reaction across the Pacific, as here they have known for decades that it's cuteness that really sells. The global success has been a relief to the previously troubled Nintendo, and also a dream come true to the game's creators, Tajiri Satoshi and Ishihara Tsunekazu, founders of the company Game Freak. They spent six years developing the product, before the deal they made with Nintendo allowed the finished product to go on sale in February 1996. "When I finished Pokemon," confesses Tajiri, "I thought Nintendo would reject it. I was like a baseball player sliding into second base, knowing he's going to be out. But somehow I was safe."

So began the meteoric rise to fame - marred only by the "Pokemon Shock" incident of December 1997. The TV show was suddenly pulled when almost 700 children had fits and convulsions after watching an episode featuring strobe-like computer graphics. After numerous apologies, and new guidelines for TV producers, the bandwagon was allowed to roll on.

Playing your cards right
In Japan, the focus of Nintendo's retail operation is the Pokemon Center in the heart of Nihonbashi. During the week, 1500 people on average pass through its gates, going up to 4000 a day on weekends. "The most crowded time I've ever seen," recalls manager Makiko Osada, "was summer 1998, during the screening of the first Pokemon movie. That's what we called the Pokemon bakuhatsu (explosion)."

togepiFor non-Japanese parents living in Tokyo, the range of English-language products is limited. They don't sell the English versions of the animated videos or the board-game developed with TOMY. They do sell the trading cards in English, but the waiting list to place an order is frightening to think about. "What I would say is just come down to the Pokemon Center and see what we do have on offer," counseled Osada. "The range is so vast, you are sure to find something you like. The highlight of our campaign this Christmas is the new Gold and Silver game cartridges, which contain new maps, a new story, and 100 new monsters. The 'secret path' of the new game involves finding Pokemon eggs... which nobody has ever seen before." Alternative ways of acquiring the trading cards worth investigating are Tokyo Oroshuri Center, an exhibition and wholesale retail outlet in Gotanda (03-3494-2200). There is also Narita airport - this writer got a sneaky tip saying there were some in the duty free shopping area, although that may well have changed by the time you read this.

hitokagePokemon's foreign appeal is not just limited to the US. The movie opened in Australia on the same day and to similar scenes of adulation. The TV show has been screened in Germany and Italy, with other European countries to follow suit - along with the games and other merchandise, of course. The Nintendo toys have been part of a wider craze in Southeast Asia, with all the facets of Japanese pop culture - from Hello Kitty to Mononoke Hime, from Sailor Moon to the gory "Ring" - inspired psycho-horror movies - suddenly acquiring a legion of young fans from Singapore to South Korea. The attraction there being, as some observers have pointed out, the protagonists are recognizably Asian, and share a visible heritage and cultural link.

kemon bakuhatsu "What makes this marketing campaign is its emphasis on sheer acquisitiveness. That tag line 'you gotta catch em all' means 'you gotta buy them all'."

Two can play this game
In teen fads of this kind before, this is when parents across the world start wringing their hands and wailing about how the craze is "corrupting" their children and distracting them from what they "should be" doing. A surprising number of parents, however, have been coming out in favor of the ubiquitous Pokemon. Unlike the previous Game Boy games, the red and blue handsets actually encourage interaction, rather than let the preteen sink into a solitary game world.

kyasuSupporters claim that the game, and by extension the shows and the movie, emphasizes traditional Japanese values, such as teamwork, compassion, and value judgment. The interactive nature means that children must also cooperate and negotiate, and along the way they learn reading and mathematics skills. "That's pure bunkum," says James Hudson of the LA-based Society of Consumer Concerns. "What makes this marketing campaign is its emphasis on sheer acquisitiveness. That tag line 'you gotta catch 'em all' means 'you gotta buy them all'."

Indeed, many schools have banned the trading cards from their playgrounds and hallways because they are seen to promote the more aggressive aspects of competitive behavior. A lawsuit has recently been filed against Nintendo by a group of parents, claiming that the cards deliberately encourage gambling. Britain's Early Learning Center has refused to stock the entire range of goods because it considers them too violent, and in a recent surprise move, Puerto Rican politician Roberto Cruz called for an inquest into their influence on children's behavior, because he finds the appearance of the monsters "devilish."

fushigidaneIn realistic terms, however, Pokemon may well be a victim of its own success. Parents around the world have consistently been disappointed by the failure of supply to keep up with demand (the damage caused by the recent earthquake in Taiwan didn't help matters - that's where computer chips used in the Game Boys were manufactured). It also faces an increasingly tough rival in the form of Bandai Corporation and its hand-held Wonderswan game set. Bandai is now on the attack with Wonderswan and its "DigiMon" software (no prizes for guessing DigiMon means Digital Monster). There's also the rank outsider Konami Corp, who is behind the Yugi-Oh Duel Monsters game and collectible card sets. Japan was taken totally unawares by the chaotic scenes at Tokyo Dome in August, where Konami had arranged a Yugi-Oh tournament and swap meet. Failing to cope with the 55,000 fans who turned up, the organizers decided to close the event early - and then had to call riot police when the angry, hyped-up crowd refused to leave.

In the future, Pokemon is destined to go the way of all toys - the preserve of childhood memories and the treasure of memorabilia-hunters. In Japan, however, it will join the hall of fame of nationally recognized icons, along with Ultraman, Sazae-san and Doraemon, representing pop culture at the end of the millennium... so let the future media pundits and social historians have a good time puzzling that one out.

Pokemon center

299: Pokemania
Pikachu conquers the world by stealth and cuteness
298: Snow time like the present
When, where and how to get your share of the white stuff this winter
297: Helping Hands
The spirit of giving through volunteering
296: Stop the Music
Tokyo's nightclubs under attack
295: Just Do It!
Staying in shape in the city
294: 2 can play that game
The next generation of games consoles
293: Vegging out in Tokyo
Some of Tokyo's meatless oases
292: Multiplicity
The belated arrival of the multiplex
291: After a Fashion
Zita Ohe walks through Tokyo's fall/winter fashions
290: Used and Abused
Second-hand shops in the city
289: Microbrew - a mini guide
Tour the best of Tokyo's independent suds makers
288: The Delusions of a Kabuki Addict
Visit Ginza's Kabuki-za
287: Live and Learn
Studying traditional culture in Tokyo
286: Are you quaking?
Preparing for the big one
285: Sagawa Kyubin guys
Faces behind the takkyubin phenomenon
284: South Park
Christian Storms, creative producer and transwriter of the Japanese South Park
283: A saner Tokyo
Counselling and healing options for Japan's foreign community
282: Trainspotting
The Yamanote Line trivia quiz
281: The Lost World
Graham Hancock, inventor of a new genre of history mystery investigation
Graham Hancock: Transcript
280: Body of Art
Working out with traditional Japanese arts to work out
279: Open all hours
Japanese convenience stores
278: The Rice Stuff
A guide to sake
277: Get out!
Feasting al fresco in the summer
276: The Empire Strikes Big
The force behind Star Wars
275: Don't worry be happy!
A definitive guide to Tokyo's drinking deals
274: Off the hook
Tokyo's Central Wholesale Market
273: Books
Donald Richie, worldwide authority on Japan and Japanese culture
272: What's up pussy cat?
Hello Kitty turns twenty-five
271: Moving mountains for Freedom
The Tibetan Freedom Festival
270: So you think you're safe?
Women's safety in Tokyo
269: Are these the droids you're looking for?
Japan's new robot army
268: From beast to beauty
Catering to the beauty needs of foreigners
267: Perfect TV
Exploring Japanese TV
266: Let's do talk
The portable phenomenon of keitai
265: Get ready to rock!
The third annual Fuju Rock Festival
264: Kichijoji uncovered
A delightfully different day out
263: Tour Japan one bite at a time
The eleventh annual Furusato Fair
262: Golden getaways
Get you out of town this Golden Week
261: Millennium fudge
Can Tokyo survive the Millennium bug?
260: Ueno Park
A walk in the low city
259: Stressed to kill
Lifethreatening stress in Tokyo
258: Oodles of noodles
A day in a life of a local ramen shop
257: Off the shelf
Tokyo city libraries
256: Lord of light
Tokyo Classifieds founder Mark Devlin
255: Are you game
Indoor sports to get your blood on the boil
254: Eat your heart out
Valentine's Day in Japan
253: The way of wagashi
A friendly face in Japanese cooking
252: Face to face with Harajuku
Yoyogi Park street culture
251: What a grind!
In search of the perfect cup of coffee
250: The year of the rabbit
Chinese astrological signs