Exploring Japan’s Pokemon Go culture

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As some readers may know, I’ve spent the last few years in Japan trying to tackle the local gaming scene, online and off. While Japan may be the birthplace of gaming, it doesn’t always feel that way, especially for a western gamer. The large amount of gaming swag, existence of Akihabara as a geek Mecca, and emphasis on large, difficult multi-player experiences masks underlying cultural norms that make nearly all hobbies as an adult something of a private matter. While MassivelyOP’s coverage of Pokemon Go makes the game seem like an international socialization sensation, there are specific practices that make international scenes somewhat different from how our readers in North America and Europe may experience them in their part of the world.

Japan’s PGO culture in particular may be somewhat different than expected, so before I really experience how things are in America, I want to describe what I’ve experienced in the series’ birthplace.

The Japanese Government’s Pokemon Go Public Safety Announcement Header

Basic cultural differences

Before we get into some of the fine details, let’s briefly cover the basic cultural differences. The PGO culture is a product of many factors, but there are three in particular that I feel should be highlighted to best explain the Japanese PGO scene: anime culture, group harmony, and privacy.

Anime culture is relatively easy to explain: It’s everywhere. Cartoons are used for everything from teaching kids to avoid cigarettes to advertising condoms. In fact, the Japanese government created an online handout for Pokemon Go before the game was released. To note, the warning is not aimed just at kids, as several posters mention that the Japanese kanji characters are too difficult for kids to read and that many (falsely) believed the game couldn’t be downloaded by kids under 13. This means that while some people believed that the game was for kids, the government aimed to warn adults about the game and specifically chose cartoons to aid them.

This leads to group harmony. If you think the internet seems overly negative in English, it can become quite shocking in Japanese. Face to face, you will very rarely hear open constructive criticism unless alcohol is involved. When criticism is needed, it’s masked and quite indirect. Compliments can be the same way. Instead of directly saying you have a nice shirt, people may tell their friends in a loud voice that your shirt is very cool in hopes that you hear it. It may seem odd, but just think about the times you’ve gotten a compliment but from a person that seemed a bit off. The idea is that if you can “read the air,” you can respond properly, keep your social mask in place, and avoid causing social harm if there’s a disagreement.

Instead, people usually unload online since they may have few opportunities to say their true thoughts in meatspace. Anonymity is still a big part of Japanese internet use etiquette, though it’s starting to change. In my experience, the attention to social harmony is usually the root of a lot of Western-Japanese inter-cultural clashes. The difference between your real thoughts and social face are huge, and those who are unable to separate the two are generally viewed as children. Naturally, it’s expected that foreigners may have difficulty with this concept and they’re cut some slack, but that’s Japan’s general strategy. It’s because of this that I made sure to interview people in person and online, as well as searched through Japanese social media before writing this up.


Finally, there’s privacy. Japan is a small country. Bartenders and street vendors often knew my co-workers by their first name. I couldn’t leave my house without seeing a student. I bumped into ex-girlfriends multiple times in Tokyo. In fact, I randomly met two former students from the Kanto region in the Kansai region while playing PGO, which is like meeting a friend from New York City in Los Angeles. One teacher once suggested that the only time you can truly be alone in Japan is in the bathroom of your own home.

Because of this and the above concept of social masks, certain topics are rarely discussed with strangers as people want their private time. For example, bookstores often offer a free, blank paper cover on all books, from manga to research novels. People don’t want others to know what they are reading, and if you can guess it, you still shouldn’t try it. That’s a lesson from personal experience!

While Japanese people may approach foreigners and ask questions we may see as rude, it’s mostly because Japanese people don’t have that opportunity so much in their everyday life. You can talk about the weather, how long you’ve been waiting in a line, or how good the food is, but unless you’re friends, talking to Japanese people in Japanese about hobbies or current events can lead to some awkward moments.

In short, differences in PGO culture stem from an acceptance of cartoons as an all-ages medium but is restricted by notions of trying to maintain social harmony and maximizing private time, even when in public spaces.


PokeGo pre-release

There was a lot of anticipation building up for the game’s release in Japan itself, but also a little resentment. Kotaku has some examples of this, but that’s just a small slice of what I heard from students as I was preparing to return to America. As I had just done a lesson using Pokemon to teach etymology and study habits, many students approached me about the game and its release, some of them nearly heartbroken that a “Japanese game” was out abroad for so long first. After explaining that the game’s developer, Niantic, was American, some students could understand why America was one of the first countries to get the game. However, they still desperately wished for release, with many of my final farewell messages including notes that students hoped to be able to play the game soon.

In general, Japan is still seen as the center of gaming within Japan. Western games may get some coverage, but very few get big outside of some shooters. As I mentioned in my Overwatch impressions, even Blizzard doesn’t have a reputation in Japan, so a much smaller company like Niantic is beyond meaningless there. As seen through Nintendo’s stock market roller coaster ride during release, Japanese people see Pikachu and think Nintendo, a founding games company that is decidedly Japanese. While the official Pokemon Company is largely owned by Japanese companies, Niantic is not, and while there were people playing Ingress in Japan, it’s still largely unknown to the average gamer. Candy CrushAngry Birds, and any other big mobile title from America is also relatively unknown in Japan aside from commercials because, well, Japanese players are largely enjoying Japanese-made games. The idea of bringing in a western company to handle a Japanese IP is perplexing to gamers there.

While students were looking forward to the game, a few coworkers were concerned, mostly those with small children. One parent had recently bought a 3DS and Pokemon game for her child and worried her little boy may want to use mommy’s phone all the time. Another had kept up with some of the news and proclaimed he was happy his child was over Pokemon, but I could sense some hesitation over that proclamation, as group mentality is especially strong among children and his son had fallen into other fads.

What hadn’t happened until perhaps a week before release was adult co-workers mentioning a desire to play. Perhaps it was because they had overheard students talking to me about it, but it did occur, though in the most polite and brief discussions. Just simple questions about whether I knew of the game or knew the release date. It was obvious that some wanted to discuss it in detail, but as we were in public, there was some restraint that would have to wait until release and some privacy.


Initial release response

As soon as the PGO servers were up, my girlfriend notified me. When I thought I was alone, I checked my phone, only to find that a co-worker had been looking for me specifically to tell me of the good news.

What was interesting, though, was this coworker would not be playing. He didn’t have a phone that could play it and didn’t have the money for a new one. He had, however, already learned a lot about the game. In fact, I learned about the region-exclusive Pokemon from him, and we spent a walk to a party talking about the game. I had talked games a bit with him before, but mostly arcade games, and we’d come to the conclusion that we probably lived in different gaming circles, so gaming was a topic rarely discussed prior to PGO‘s release.

Perhaps an hour after that initial conversation, another co-worker came to show me that not only had the game been released but that he’d gotten some eggs. He’d used his break time to “take a walk,” which allowed him to hit some PokeStops and catch a few Pokemon. I noticed he’d gotten a Pikachu, and he revealed that he’d read online how to get it while waiting for the Japanese release. Again, this was a co-worker whom I had talked about games to in the past, but as he mostly stuck to phone games, we rarely discussed gaming. I didn’t think I had co-workers who used the internet for game tips like my students did, but this teacher had.

During my going away party, the game came up once again and serves as an example of most of my interactions with fellow PGO players in meatspace. The one person who didn’t play was lightly teased, but while he was present, we tried to avoid discussing the game. For them, it was OK to play the game while talking or even walking, as long as we were careful not to become too absorbed and maintain appropriate social responses. We discussed light topics, like where to find a lot of Dratini before their nests were removed, which team we’d joined (blue), and the curve ball, but we avoided going into deep mechanics and strategies until non-players were gone or absorbed in another activity. Instead, we talked about name differences, since that was more accessible to our non-player.

This is key, as many adult players mentioned that they had played the early games but not later ones, so the current Pokemon available appealed to them. Like Pokemon X/YPGO’s emphasis on the original 150 Pokemon seemed to be front and center in order to attract the broadest possible audience, and it worked. Younger teachers who had started in later generations knew many of these Pokemon too, since Nintendo often gave the older Pokemon some new form in the later games. Even students were familiar with them for the same reason.

However, several Japanese people have told me that news reports focus on how middle aged people especially like the game. One feeling frequently repeated to me was that seeing Pokemon in the real world made us feel like a kid again, reliving the basic idea of Pokemon being part of the real world — the new medium brought us closer to that idea. In fact, on my last day in Japan, I spent two hours at a local shopping center at a train station and saw many older people, especially women over 40, playing, some alone, some with another female friend — and yet I saw only a few kids playing.

When I left Japan in mid August, the game was still fairly popular. In the first two weeks, almost everyone you saw was playing the game. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone playing a different mobile game until after that period, and my girlfriend and I were frequently checking, as we spent a good chunk of time traveling around Japan. While we had fun, we noticed certain aspects of the game really stood out that we hadn’t heard about or registered based on what we’d heard from western gaming outlets prior to release.

Pokemon Go culture: A matter of silence

PokemonGO_castle_ruinsThe very first thing that stands out about Pokemon Go is that in Japan, it feels like playing alone together. The parks are busy, but oddly quiet for me as an American. Then again, I won’t get the opportunity to hunt Pokemon in real castle ruins in America, so the atmosphere was a little surreal for me!

The Dratini nest park I mentioned previously had a lot of Pokemon “zombies,” the term in Japan for people who walk around absorbed in their phone. The term really fits when you see it: tons of people, alone or in small groups, walking around from PokeStop to PokeStop with hardly a word spoken. There may be some chatter among friends, but almost never between strangers.

Shouting out the location of a rare Pokemon is abnormal. One person, obviously doing it as a prank, attempted to trick people into thinking there was a Snorlax near him, but other park goers shouted other rare Pokemon names to show that they didn’t believe him. The prank videos from the west are very much known, but they aren’t the reason for avoiding this practice even with good intentions. As some of my contacts mentioned, it’s related to privacy and keeping social harmony. While there may be many people playing the game in a certain location, shouting and rushing to the same location disturbs other park goers. If you want to let others know of a rare Pokemon, you can pretend you are talking to a friend or yourself and mention the Pokemon. Some older women did this with Dratini in the park to help the rest of us out, and my girlfriend and I did it quite a few number of times in our travels (though we got a bit excited finding a Pikachu in a popular mall, which made a bit of a scene as other players had trouble holding back their excitement as well),

For this reason, organizing gym assaults is nearly unheard of, even on Twitter. I even checked with some of my more social media savvy contacts and they hadn’t seen any. The game is mostly used to bond with people you know, not strangers, and as such, gym assaults seem to be by lone players possibly playing in the same physical location or groups of friends. The only time another Japanese player spoke to me (outside of coworkers and students who found me playing) was to discuss game mechanics. However, he specifically mentioned he was learning English and that he didn’t speak to Japanese players randomly, so this occurred because I was perceived to be a foreigner.


Bonding with Pokemon

This bonding situation is important, as it has quite a strong effect. For example, a family friend who knows I like games but rarely expresses interest in playing with me wanted to hunt Pokemon together when we recently met up. She didn’t play the games as a child, but because people around her played, she started playing too and dragged her younger sister into it. She plays with friends and even co-workers. Her sister, who enjoys exercise, plays a little, but only with her sister, and I only saw them play together one time when they walked to a shopping center. When all of us went out, I played the most, but the older sister would check to see if I had found any Pokemon. If we found a rare Pokemon, the two of us would attempt to catch them, but only if we could find a place to stand that wasn’t in the way of other people.

One of my students mentioned that the game has been bringing families together, citing that she’d seen fathers and daughters playing together. Fathers in Japan are still often largely stuck at work most of the time, and as gender roles lean more traditional, there are few activities fathers can generally enjoy with their daughters. However, I’ve seen mothers helping sons, big sisters helping little brothers, and maybe even some grandparents involved with very young children. The game really does bring families together.

Truthfully, the lack of mixing is visually apparent. When I’d go to popular hunting spots, you could see people in the same school uniforms standing together. Foreigners kept to their own groups, mommas taking their kids on play dates whispered to themselves, day laborers smoked together waiting for Pokemon to come to their lure while nearby businessmen took laps to hit the nearby stops. When people leave, you can hear goodbyes, but also “otsukaresama,” a phrase that, in this context, marks the group as people who came specifically to hunt. It’s used in online games like Monster Hunter because it’s often also associated with the end of the workday. More casual farewells are usually used in everyday life.

Casuals and hardcores

PokemonGO_gundamFor most non-long time fans and casual players, the catching aspect is the biggest draw to the game, with or without castle ruins. As many people told me, Pokemon are cute and interesting, so it’s fun to catch them. The gym battles, however, seem complex, and since holding them is hard, it’s generally seen as useless.

That being said, gyms aren’t completely abandoned in Japan. For example, I would take an area during a slow time, only to have some college kids bike past me and take the one I had just spent an hour taking alone. More often, however, I get the feeling that locals just defended their turf. Multiple times in various Japanese neighborhoods (as I spent weeks at a time in different locations my last month in Japan), I would spend my first day putting my Pokemon in multiple gyms to see how often they would change hands or get built up.

As you might expect, anything easily accessible, especially from main roads, changed hands often unless it was guarded by truly powerful Pokemon. However, deep within residential areas, gyms that had fairly weak ‘mon would always be recaptured in a day or less, often with the same trainers or Pokemon returning to guard them. I tried waiting in the area around 20 minutes or longer to see if there would be a reaction on holidays and after work hours, but I never bumped into locals, which reinforces my idea that said gyms aren’t guarded by some Poke-maniacs but locals on the same team with some free time.

The online scene is similar: no talk of gym control, just mapping out locations. I found my city’s 2chan threads, and most of it was about discussing good places to catch Pokemon and update effects. Oddly enough, the bug that made Pokemon harder to catch didn’t seem to faze anyone and was rarely mentioned, probably because the game was quite new to us.

I’m not sure how long it will last, but it has made certain parts of Japanese life easier. For example, theme park lines are atrocious as an American. While a two-hour wait may only be an hour in America as people give up on the line and move out, lines in Japan rarely include quitters. Universal Studios Japan had plenty of PokeStops near its rides, and people put up lures weeks after the game was released. While people weren’t playing nearly as much as before, I often saw other people take out their smartphones because they saw someone else was playing.



One part of why the Stops remain popular even at theme parks is that you are stuck in one place for a long time and not all locations have easy access to Stops. For example, my family friend and I lived above two PokeStops, so we could stock up on supplies any time. However, my girlfriend lived in a virtual Poke-Desert. You could scan chunks of the virtual map and see nothing: no gyms, no stops, no tall grass.

People playing alone are tolerated, but as the game seems to be used for bonds, it is considered a bit embarrassing. Much as with books, people seem to hide the fact that they’re playing now, sometimes even in small groups. It’s a hobby that other people shouldn’t have to tolerate. In fact, I felt like the only topics people could usually discuss were sports, TV, and studying English. Anything else seemed to make people worry that they were showing off, as there was often tension if I brought it up in a public space and a bit of nervousness as others learned that someone had a non-“standard” hobby.

People seem a little more open in areas that are hot spots for certain Pokemon, especially in parks or on trains, but walking and playing visually appears to be a guilty pleasure people try to hide. The knowledge of foreigners causing issues is fresh in everyone’s mind, and non-players often warn me to watch out when I go play. What’s funny about this, though, is I recall very few moments when I even nearly bumped into another player. When people did bump into me, it was the usual type: people with their headphones on and eyes down listening to music or texting someone, often while crossing the street. The stigma presented to us by western players is strong, and I feel a lot of Japanese PGO players strive to make sure that culture doesn’t arise in the homeland of Pokemon.

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