The game that took America by craze in early summer 2016 and then very quickly stopped being a craze is still very much a thing in Japan.
PokemonGO was created by Niantic as a collaboration with Nintendo for the Pokemon Company. It was released in selected countries in July 2016.
People were going crazy when the game first dropped. One of the aspects people praised was the fact that it got people outside and moving around in the real world as opposed to planted in front of a TV. People got outside and walked more than many had ever before so they could catch Pokemon, spin Poke Stops and get candy for their buddies.
The game came to Japan several weeks after countries like the United States and Australia. People in Japan were not pleased since Japan is of course the birthplace of Pokemon.
When it finally did drop here in Japan people went CRAZY! The day it was released most of my colleagues were downloading it and playing it in our teacher’s room. On my way home from work that evening (I cycle commute), I saw people everywhere playing it.
PokemonGO became huge in Japan.
There was of course some controversy surrounding the game. There were reports of many accidents in many countries. People were playing the game while cycling, riding motorbikes and even driving. Some people considered the game a nuisance. Loads of people wandering through dark areas late at night, bumping into others, walking into trees, the list goes on. In Japan one man was even convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison after hitting someone with his car and killing them while he played the game.
I would listen to tech podcasts based out of America and they covered the PokemonGo phenomenon. Nothing like it had ever happened before. It continued for several months, but then the popularity began to drop off. The same happened here in Japan, but I would still see many people playing months later.
I actually stopped playing the game about a month after it was released. A few months went by and my 6-year old son started telling me about all of his classmates playing the game. They were all Japanese and their parents definitely had more of a connection with the Pokemon universe than I had. The parents were playing and letting their children play using their phones.
I wanted my son to be able to join his classmates in the conversation. That’s a really big deal in Japan. If he wasn’t playing or had no knowledge he could easily be excluded by classmates. He could quickly find himself on the outside (being part of the group is a crucial in social worlds in Japan).
I decided we would play together. I started a new account and we became a team. Each night after diner we would go for a PokeWalk! There are loads of PokeStops in my neighborhood. Actually, where I live on Port Island in Kobe, Japan has a reputation for having lots of rare Pokemon so PokemonGO players from all over the area often come here at night (or daytime during the weekends) to play.
Fast forward to spring 2017. The crowds of the initial weeks after the game was released are gone, but I still play it regularly with my son and solo. I still see lots of people playing it.
A few weeks ago on a sunny Saturday afternoon I was sitting in a park that has four PokeStops. I was writing an article for JustJapanStuff and I noticed a lot of people playing PokemonGO. In the 30-40 minutes I was there writing I saw at least 40-60 people, clearly playing the game walking around.
The game may have dropped off by 80-90% in America, but Japan is the land of Pokemon! The connection with the world of Pokemon is far stronger here than in other countries.
I’m typing this story on April 1st, 2017 and today is the 20th anniversary of Pokemon. The inspiration for this post is the fact that my two children are sitting in the living room watching a Pokemon 20th Birthday Special on TV right now.
It’s not as big as it was last summer, but it’s still big in Japan!
Kevin O’Shea is the host of the Just Japan Podcast and the Just Japan News Podcast. He is also the guy behind JustJapanStuff. Kevin is a Canadian educator who lives in Kobe, Japan with his family.
Follow him on Twitter: @jlandkev