INTO THE NEXT STAGE: ‘Pokémon Go’: The Power of Pokémon Compels Youth

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PGEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTONBy GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Something happened July 6 that continues to rock the world. Happily, I’m not referring to another terrorist attack, police-related shooting or natural disaster.

Rather, I’m referring to the release of the mobile gaming app “Pokémon Go.” If you read newspapers, news websites, use social media or just do old-school radio or TV news, you’ve probably heard of it by now.

You may have even seen groups of young people walking about, holding their smartphones in front of them as they attempt to find and capture animated “pocket monster” characters overlaid on the background of the local territory seen by their phone’s camera, GPS (global positioning satellite) info and Google Maps app. In less than a month, “Pokémon Go” has become a “thing” — I know this because I have a 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son who have succumbed to the lure of this so-called augmented reality game.

Fortunately, they aren’t among those who have stumbled into the news thanks to falling off a cliff, crashing a car, trespassing on private property, getting mugged or crossing a busy highway in pursuit of a fictional Pikachu, Charmander or Rattata.

I’m just impressed that the Pokémon franchise, which originated in Japan less than 30 years ago is still going strong. Less than three decades makes Pokémon a relative youngster compared to the list of pop culture intellectual properties like “Star Trek,” Captain America, Superman and Batman that have been released as movies this year.

The Western world’s first news exposure was probably from a news story from 1997, when, reportedly, hundreds of Japanese children watching an episode of the spin-off animated cartoon experienced epileptic seizures. Turns out the rapidly flickering lights from the red eyes of Pikachu caused “ … convulsions, vomiting, irritated eyes, and other symptoms.”

pokemon goFrightening? Maybe not. Instead of scaring people away, that news may have actually attracted young people to seek out Pokémon to see what the fuss was all about. Anyway, just two years later in the U.S., Warner Bros. Pictures in November released “Pokémon the First Movie” on a Wednesday and it was the five-day weekend’s highest-grossing movie, grossing about $52 million. (Back in my Nov. 11, 1999 column I wrote: “It is, of course, part of the ‘Pokémon’ phenomenon that seems to have gripped the current under-10 crowd, thanks to the Saturday morning show and the trading cards. From what I’ve gleaned, the ‘Pokémon’ movie doesn’t have the appeal for grownups that ‘[Princess] Mononoke’ may — but it doesn’t matter. When it opens tomorrow, the ones who’ll be lining up to see it will be the legions of ‘Pokémon’-crazed kids.”)

There would also spin off video games and TV shows and other movies — but in time, Pokémon seemingly faded away. Until it came back.

As mentioned, I have a two children and about five years ago they got into Pokémon big time, via Pokémon cards, which they collected and traded and played with against other kids. I was actually a bit surprised at the time that Pokémon was still popular. Pokémon, it turns out, never really went away.

Like so many things that have become part of our pop culture landscape of late, the global Pokémon phenomenon, as noted, came from Japan. The word is derived from “pocket monster,” or made-up creatures that can (presumably) fit in one’s pocket and be summoned to fight other Pokémon. The most famous Pokémon is Pikachu, a yellow critter with electrical powers.

Pokémon originally began as a video game title from Japanese video-game giant Nintendo. According to Wikipedia, its creator, Satoshi Tajiri, was inspired by his childhood pastime of collecting insects. In Japan, bug collecting has also been a “thing” for decades. While you can still buy cages for collecting kabuto mushi (rhinoceros beetle), kamakiri (praying mantis) and other bugs, there was a time I can remember stores in Japan that would sell to children kits that contained a hypodermic needle and liquid poison for killing and preserving your beloved bugs in a collection! It was a more innocent time.

Now, with this app for Apple iPhones and Android smartphones, Pokémon is back, and has returned to its video game roots. Those who were kids when it was a title for Nintendo’s Game Boy are probably among today’s older “Pokémon Go” users. While it has been described as an “augmented reality” game, there are dissenters who say it’s really a location-based game. If not augmented reality in the strictest sense, it is safe to say the game serves as an introduction to what AR can and will be. Five years from now, “Pokémon Go” will seem as quaint as the original Walkman.

While some of the news has been sensational, “Pokémon Go” has also been hailed as a way to get device-addicted youngsters to actually go outdoors and actually walk in “RR” (real reality) as they chase down imaginary animals. Yes, actual walking, folks!

While the game is actually a joint venture among Nintendo, the Pokémon Co. and Alphabet-owned Niantic, Nintendo — stock ticker NTDOY — has been a beneficiary of the game app’s popularity; its price has nearly doubled from 17.63 per share on the day before the game became available to 33.67 at the close of trading Wednesday, and hitting an intraday high of 38.25 earlier in the week.

In just days, it’s also become the biggest mobile game app ever, and is supposedly generating more than $2 million daily in sales. It’s proven so popular that its computer servers have become so overloaded they’ve crashed. Proof that “Pokémon Go” has taken over: Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia have banned the game since they consider it to be a form of gambling.

Here’s the funny thing: “Pokémon Go” hasn’t even been released with a localized Japanese version in Japan yet! There are news stories about how there will be a tie-in between McDonald’s of Japan and the game, but things have been delayed while technical issues — like making sure servers don’t crash — get worked out in advance.

What would be great: If there was a way to “plant” Pokémon creatures and eggs around the upcoming Nisei Week or whichever Obon festival is next. Those events need foot traffic and this would virtually guarantee lots of “Pokémon Go” players to show up.

That would be ironic — getting an iconic Japanese pop culture item to attract people to come to a Japanese American-based event. Now if only The Rafu Shimpo could use “Pokémon Go” to sell subscriptions!

Rafu Subscriptions Dept.: Speaking of Rafu Shimpo and summer festivals, if you’re attending the Pasadena Obon this weekend, look for The Rafu Shimpo’s table and say hi to the publisher, Mickey Komai, who is slated to be there to help sell subscriptions. Drag along a friend who doesn’t subscribe while you’re at it and urge them to get a subscription.

Also happening this weekend is the 53rd annual Cultural Festival and Ondo at the Southeast Japanese School and Community Center in Norwalk, where The Rafu will also have a presence.

The following weekend is the West Los Angeles Obon and I’ll be helping with that one; if you’re interested in spending a couple-three hours there, too, send me an email!

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2016 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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