Pokemon, aka "Pocket Monster Trainer", is the undisputed Biggest Video Game Property currently existing in the nation of Japan. We can attribute its bigness to a variety of factors, the most important and controversial of which is perhaps "everything".
Today, we're going to discuss everything, and we're also going to discuss what I like to call the Worst Marketing Ploy Ever Conceived.
Hello. I'm tim rogers. For the next six and a half hours, I'll be your guide to a near-incomprehensible wall of text in which I mention Pokemon two or three times. If you need to get a drink before we start, I'd recommend something hard.
TOKYO, JAPAN, AUGUST 2009—Summer has summed, and the train of time has slid out of the tunnel of July and into the rolling fields of August. It's usually the custom that everyone in Tokyo refers to the month of June as "the rainy season", though such a name is really unnecessary. In Tokyo, you see, it simply rains a lot. One of my ongoing theories is that the more people you pack into a greater megalopolitan area, the more nervous they are when it comes to talking about anything interesting. The minute the clock rolls over to midnight on June 21st, everyone is talking about how hot it is, whether it is, in fact, hot or not. This year — and last year — the summer has been ominously mild, and Tokyo citizens have communicated the perfunctory "it's so hot, isn't it?" with a visible degree of shame. This summer, at least, it has rained consistently. A rare day or two a week it rains all day, or profusely for an hour or two. The rest of the days, it's a sick, weak, obnoxious little ankle-biting gremlin of a rain, all day. It's safe to say that, for many citizens, the word "summer" doesn't remain on the tip of the tongue 24/7.
As a self-made, well-off human being of perhaps-peculiar persuasions, I enjoy five wonderful hobbies during the summer months:
1. Riding trains
2. Riding air-conditioned trains
3. Sitting while riding air-conditioned trains
4. Sitting at the end of a bench on an air-conditioned train (so I can lean my head against the side)
5. Drinking a Coca-Cola Zero while sitting at the end of a bench on an air-conditioned train
This summer is strange, because it is not so hot outside as to make hobby #2 quite as exciting as usual. However, I still jump at every opportunity to ride a train across town, because I have Dragon Quest IX on my Nintendo DS, and that's better than nothing.
"Summer" generally means different things to different people, though for Japanese people, it tends to most often mean "the month of August" and "a week's vacation in the month of August". They say that something called the "Bon Festival", which, in addition to unfortunately not having anything to do with Bon Scott, the now-deceased former frontman of AC/DC, is also sometimes called "Obon". Obon is a rough sketch of a traditional Buddhist festival structured around the idea of paying respect to one's dead ancestors. Traditionally, people use this festival as a reason to travel to whatever country town holds the cemetery where their grand- or great-grandparents' ashes are interred. They pay their respects at the cemetery, then spend time with their relatives. As far as reasons for a holiday go, it's not terrible at all.
In recent times, the Bon Festival has, like most other world holidays, experienced a secularization. The solemn semi-religious observation is not so much the point of the festival anymore; in much of the population, the phrase "Bon Festival" is synonymous with "a week's paid vacation".
For whatever the reason, "Golden Week" is the "Japanese" "Holiday" that most people outside Japan seem to know anything about. What is Golden Week, though? It's a couple of scattered days off, usually in the middle of a week. Sometimes, infuriatingly, two of the days fall on a Saturday and a Sunday. We've had maybe three years in a row where, despite it being Golden Week, everyone has had to work on Tuesday and Wednesday. In this case, companies permit employees to use up a few of their vacation days to transform Golden Monday and Thursday into an actual Golden Week.
Why is Golden Week the poster boy for Japanese holidays? This is an important question. The answer would have something to do with how Golden Week means absolutely nothing. I once looked up the reasons behind the Golden Week holidays, though I won't bore you with an explanation. All I'll say is that I have never met another person who had any clue as to the significance of any of the Golden Week holidays.
Another important fact: "Golden Week" is not a translation of a Japanese-language phrase. They call it "Golden Week", in English. Posters advertising sales commemorating Golden Week will sometimes only show the letters "GW".
In short, Golden Week, which comes in May, is not the "real" Japanese holiday. Obon is. However, Obon, like all great religious-themed periods of celebration, is vague and undefined. The festival traditionally calls for three days of solemn observation, though the ancient Buddhists didn't include a formula for figuring out exactly when those three days should be every year. For the most part, the entire month of August is open to Obon celebrations, though Japanese offices are certain to give employees only one full week off — and even then, they'll only call it "summer vacation". I've worked for companies where the summer vacation was the first week of August, the second week of August, or the third week of August. I've never worked for a company where the summer vacation was the fourth week of August, though I'm not sure I really need to. A coworker at a previous job of mine once said that his wife was going to Hawaii for summer vacation, and when I asked if he was going with her, he said that he couldn't, because her summer vacation week was different from his. Generally, however, it would seem that the summer vacation week for schools and most companies happens to be the first week of August.
And much like Christmas, originally about the birth of a religious savior-figure named Jesus, is now about buying things for people and hoping that they buy more things for you, much how Easter, originally about the death of a religious savior-figure named Jesus, is now about receiving rabbit- or egg-shaped chocolates, now and forever Obon is about collecting all of the Pokemon.
WE ARE TALKING ABOUT VIDEOGAMES NOW
Every year, in the first week of August, Nintendo, The Pokemon Company, and Japan Rail East hold a promotional event called the "Pokemon Stamp Rally". This has been going on for maybe ten years. The nature and scope of this promotional event is mind-blowing. And if we've consumed the right amount of Brain Lube, the things it implies are even more amazing and depressing.
Here's the short of it: outside the turnstile at every one of the 95 JR train stations in the central Tokyo metropolitan area is a table upon which rests a rubber stamp. A train station employee stands watch over the rubber stamp, so that no one might steal it. Believe you me, people want to steal that stamp. Standing close by the desk, on either side, are train station employees wielding megaphones and screaming very loudly at everyone, like they've all done something wrong. The stamp design is unique to each station, with a common theme: each stamp bears the name of the train station, the JR logo, and the picture and name of one of 95 Pokemon hand-picked by Real Marketing Geniuses to represent that particular station.
The goal of the Pokemon Stamp Rally is to learn various mental impulses befitting a professional kleptomaniac. More specifically, the goal is to visit as many stations as possible, filling a book with stamps. The front page of the promotional pamphlet says:
"Alright! Let's go on a journey — through time and space! There are 95 Pokemon stamps! Let's get all of them!"
The phrase "all of them" is not spelled in kanji.
There's no mistaking it: though the promotional pamphlet includes spaces for six stamps, if you child's reading comprehension is high enough that he could, say, play and enjoy the Pokemon games, then — well, he is also very conditioned to follow directions to the letter, so he will see these instructions and immediately request that you fill this book with six stamps and then report to one of the "goal stations" (Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Ueno, Ikebukuro, or Matsudo) to obtain the official booklet containing spaces for 95 stamps. Exhibit A: There's no business as serious as kid business. (This point is going to be very important in the Third Movement of this essay.)
The front page of the pamphlet is careful to lay out the rules directly beneath the instructions: the promotion will be held from Saturday, July 25th, 2009 to Sunday, August 9th, 2009, with stamps available from 9:30AM to 4PM. They used to put the stamps out earlier, and leave them out later, though that started interfering with rush hour traffic. Just because this is "generally" a vacation week doesn't mean that there aren't more than enough work-busy people to fill rush hour trains. It could also be that all parties involved underestimated the popularity of this promotion.
Disclaimer: I possess something of a dislike for children. This is okay — it's okay to dislike children so long as you disliked yourself while you were a child, as I did. Though disliking children has its shortcomings, it has also allowed me to progress in some ways — neither wanting nor needing to get married has allowed me to concentrate on my work. I have fought hard for a financial super-stability which allows me to make my own schedule, and seldom board a train (on business or on pleasure) prior to noon-thirty. I enjoy my home; I use it to work and to entertain myself and guests. I have no delusions of grandeur; I know I am not a unique snowflake. Every time I get on a train, I see five or six other dudes more or less just like me — free men in great clothes, on their way to make more money in an afternoon than their suit-wearing self-loathing siblings make in . . . let's say two weeks. Apparently JR, The Pokemon Company, and Nintendo don't really care for our little train bubble. They burst it with vigor every year.
Let me tell you: this Pokemon Stamp Rally thing is nuts. I was on the Chuo Line train out of Koenji yesterday at two in the afternoon, and there must have been a hundred kids packed into each car, all of them with Pikachu sun visors. The Pikachu sun visor is a free gift, given along with the 95-stamp booklet, at 7-Eleven. I have not held one in my own hands, though I imagine that the words "YOU MUST WEAR THIS FOR THE DURATION OF YOUR PROMOTIONAL EVENT EXPERIENCE" are written on it, in crayon, in the kind of block hiragana that you'd see advertising the nutritional benefits on a macaroni package.
I have observed both the train-side and station-side rituals associated with the Pokemon Stamp Rally — for several years. Here's a blow-by-blow:
We start on a train. Kids — some adult-knee-height, some adult-waist-height — stand restlessly before the train doors as it barrels out over the urban landscape. Nearby, their parents stand, eyes fixed sharply on the spaces between their respective children's shoulders. In my experience, I've never seen a child and parent having a conversation during one of these ordeals, though that might just be something resembling tremendous luck. The children breathe all over the glass. The train announcer proclaims that the train is pulling into the next stop. The children breathe more heavily. The train stops. The children waiting at the doors gaze weirdly out at a crowd of children that might, on another day, only be their reflection. The doors open. Every child on the train rushes out. The children on the other side of the doors rush into the train. The parents step out gingerly behind their children. The children, despite their rush, soon find themselves stopped in the middle of the train platform. They look left and right. They see a big yellow sign: "THE STAMP IS THIS WAY". They charge toward the exits. Their parents stroll behind, careful to not let their children out of their sight.
Now we're at the turnstile: the kids burst through, using 700-yen all-day unlimited travel tickets. As per the rules laid out of the instruction pamphlet, they line up politely at the stamp table. There, the station employee makes sure there's no funny business. They receive the stamp, slam the book shut, and turn around, where their parents hover like ghosts. Usually, the parents exit the turnstile — again, using a 700-yen all-day unlimited travel ticket — though sometimes they are able to watch their children safely from within the station. Their children, without even feigning to greet their parents, rush back through the turnstile and back up the stairs or escalator to the train platform. They wait for the next train going in the same direction they were headed. They wait on the platform, lined up politely as per the instructions written on the back of their quest booklet. The train stops. Hundreds of children wait by the doors. The doors open. The children waiting on the platform rush into the train. They stand close by the doors until the train slows to a stop at the next station.
The typical distance between train stations takes two minutes to traverse. The typical wait for trains is anywhere from two to five minutes. When you consider that there are 95 train stations, this adds up to roughly around eight hours of work. Since the "rally" is only open for six and a half hours a day, it is nearly impossible to finish all 95 stamps in one day.
1. Very, very seldom is a child accompanied by both parents. In my sample-taking I have noted that five out of ten times a child is accompanied by his father, three times by his mother, and two out of ten times by both parents.
2. The rules on the pamphlet say that each kid is allowed one stamp book, though I have noticed a nearly-disturbing number of incidences in which a parent holds a dozen or more stamp booklets in his or her arms, standing off to the side of the Rally Counter. Usually, the child is in on the scam — he comes back from the counter, trades his booklet for another one, and calmly gets back in line.
This begs the question: what is this all for? What do kids get out of this?
One thing you might want to know is that Japanese businesses tend to be criminally stingy. I once remember a flier for a pizza place that advertised a "special" wherein if you ordered 5,000 yen's worth of pizza, they'd give you pickles for just 300 yen (they're usually 500 yen). There's a bike shop near my house, for example, that offers to give you a five-percent discount on the impounding fee on a single bike if you purchase two or more bikes from them in one transaction. Out of curiosity, I asked if, in order for the deal to be valid, one would have to bring the bike to be impounded to the shop at the precise moment of the purchase of the other two bikes. "Of course", the guy replied.
So it goes without saying that the prize for spending eight to nine hours riding trains while standing up is not something spectacular: it's a little talking plush Pichu. A whopping 50 customers will receive some other Pokemon — one that looks like Voltron had sex with a giraffe.
Weirdly, the official web guide labels the "prizes" for filling out six stamps to be a "Memorial Stamp Book for 95 Stamps", a "Memorial Cover for 95-stamp Stamp Book", and "Pikachu Sun Visor".
According to the Stamp Rally official website, only 300,000 of each of these "prizes" will be available to participants in this year's rally. That would explain the rush to get it done as soon as possible. The Pokemon stamps will remain at stations until August 16th. During this time, participants are free to fill up their 95-stamp books and score a chance at winning the little plush talking Pichu. A hundred lucky winners will also receive little toys of the Pikachu jet and the Pikachu bullet train.
The pamphlet contains dense, word-filled advertisements for the two new upcoming Pokemon games — the Gold and Silver remakes coming in September for the DS — as well as the usual hype for the All Nippon Airways Pokemon jet and the JR East Pikachu Bullet Train. The marketing is sly and so simple it's somewhat scary: "Hey kids! Let's go on a trip — with Pokemon!"
Wow! So, hypothetical situation: a kid is going to see this, that there's an airplane with Pikachu painted on the side, and say "MOM. DAD. WE MUST BOARD THE PIKACHU JET / BULLET TRAIN AND FLY / RIDE SOMEWHERE RIGHT NOW." Are mom and dad going to just throw their hands up and go, "Nintendo! They got us again!" and spend a couple thousand dollars to fly their kid around Japan just because the jet and/or bullet train has a picture of Pikachu on it?
This is a serious question. I am only 10% joking (maybe).
Here's what I think of this: the picture of Pikachu is on the outside of the jet. Does it have Pikachu painted all over the inside? I am checking my internet sources: answer: no. However, according to the pamphlet here, "Customers ordering a drink on board the Pikachu Bullet Train will receive said drink in a commemorative Plastic Pikachu Cup (extra fee required)". The picture of Pikachu on the cup looks like just any other picture of Pikachu, really.
WHAT THIS ALL MEANS
This is a "long-running", "successful" marketing campaign in Japan for mainly two reasons:
1. It has been going on for ten years.
2. Pokemon has continued to build in popularity in those ten years.
Anyone in the audience who already has a PhD in economics will find what I'm about to say incredibly naive. Should you decide to continue reading, Professor, I'll be sure to pepper my description with silly metaphors for your benefit.
Japanese businesses seem to believe that every single element of a thing is necessary for its success. If a thing is popular or successful, they will not dare remove an element of it or anything surrounding it. Many times, they fail to acknowledge any inherent appeal that would earn customer loyalty. In the case of Pokemon, we have a game that is — if truth be told — incredibly well put-together. The developers of the Pokemon game work hard to evolve the series and increase its appeal to gamers of nearly all ages, and they do a spectacular job of consistently turning out better and better products. Their artists turn out classic new character designs with remarkable frequency. Though elements like trading card games, animated motion pictures, comic books, and a successful television series have certainly helped to increase the reach and status of the brand, it goes nearly without saying that the game is obviously more than at the center of everything. The game is about 99% (or more) of everything. Would the TV show have been successful at all if it weren't for the game? At the center of the Pokemon brand are the rock-solid, well-made games, and the appealing character designs.
Pokemon is an undeniably successful and admirably broad-entried multimedia franchise, all things considered. In order to fall in love with Pokemon, all you need is to be six years old, have a friend who plays the games and shows you what's cool about it, or see a big, puffy, delicious plush Pikachu on a shelf at a toy store and whisper "I want to go to there". There's a chance that great games and colorful puffy plushes are all that Nintendo needs to keep Pokemon alive. That said, if I were employed on the marketing team, you could bet your ass I would make sure they kept churning out movies and TV shows. Having a competently-directed TV series is the difference between having a hugely popular brand and a mega-hugely-popular brand. It's a no-brainer.
It's here that we come to something I like to call "The Everything Disease". Explaining what I mean in layman's terms would take approximately half of forever, so try this parable:
About a year ago, I decided to start building muscle, so as to be more identifiable by pedestrians and police officers as a member of the male gender.
In order to make sure that I waste as little time as possible, I did research on the internet. I assembled a quite-pricy shopping-cartful of supplements.
My research demonstrated that not everyone who had used every supplement I had ordered had experienced what bodybuilders call "results".
Some people claimed that supplement A produced results, while supplement B did not, and supplement C produced "big" results. Some people claimed that A produced big results, C produced no results, and B produced some results. The only thing that was certain was that no one experienced results on all three supplements.
What I did was order A, B, and C, and take them all. Theoretically, there was nothing to stop all of them from working at once.
At the end of three months, I had experienced "results". How was I to know what supplement was chiefly to blame for these results, and which ones I would be best not spending my money on?
The only "reasonable" course of action, in modern Japanese business school terms, was to declare that "everything" caused my results, to not read the labels on the supplements to figure out what they do, and to go on taking all three supplements while eating precisely the same foods at precisely the same time every day, ignoring the possibilitity that a different lifestyle configuration could produce even greater results.
This should, ideally, sound incredibly naive. So let's get even more naive:
You are perhaps familiar with pachinko — Japan's premier form of gambling. Customers pay around one yen per little silver ball, and then go nuts, smoking and staring at the cascade of shiny things for hours on end, in hopes of winning a little medal that they can then exchange at a counter around the corner for an envelope of cash.
Pachinko parlors are relentlessly noisy. The players themselves are dead silent. The noise is a combination of metal balls clattering in giant plastic machines and eclectic, psychotic music screaming over the PA system at jet-engine volumes. The musical soundtrack of a typical pachinko parlor consists of, on the average, one "song" which is somewhere between 30 and 45 seconds in length.
Another hallmark of a pachinko parlor is that they tend to either place a boombox outside or else have PA speakers at street level, providing passersby with an obnoxious sample of the music. Why do they do this? No one I have ever asked — and I have asked a lot of people, including pachinko parlor managers, all in the name of research — has ever provided me with any answer at all, much less a satisfactory one. Some pachinko parlors even employ a woman to stand next to the boombox, with a microphone in her hand, repeating the same two or three words: "Pachinko!" "Hello!" "Please!"
You need only dip your toes in the cesspool of Japanese marketing to obtain this deadly impression: Risk Assessment Constitutes a Risk.
There exists a chance — however tiny — that, if the proprietors of a pachinko parlor were to turn off the speakers blaring their music onto the street, they would experience lower profits that day than the day before. Pachinko is a business that lives on the edge as it is — customers have roughly a 51% chance of winning money, if they're good at the game — they can't afford to take a risk. Paying a girl to stand outside is a risk, in a way, because no one knows if she's really pulling her weight and helping the business. However, a one-day trial of removing the music to assess the risk might lower profits for that day, meaning that the risk assessment is a risk in and of itself. So they don't do it.
In perhaps more sane, grounded, realistic, real-world terms, if Nintendo stopped putting Pikachu on the side of a jet, the Pokemon series might collapse overnight.
Question: Why did Nintendo ever put Pikachu on the side of a jet?
Answer: because they already had a hit game series, a hit movie series, a successful toy line, a trading card game, and a TV series. If you're not "moving up", you're not moving up. Few industries in the world are as serious and world-spanning as aviation: airplanes serve a purpose in the adult world that television or videogames could never, by nature, serve. Videogames, used correctly, are purely recreational. On the other hand, there is no "right" way to use an airplane. (Unless you're the pilot.) Associating with the airline industry is a trumpet declaring that your product or brand has truly made it, is truly world-class.
Isn't it silly, though? What does Pikachu have to do with airplanes? What does the airline industry stand to gain from having Pikachu on a jet? More kids tugging at their daddies' khakis, asking to go on a trip somewhere?
If Nintendo were to stop putting Pikachu on a bullet train, the worst thing that could happen would be that someone would say, "Hey, whatever happened to that bullet train with Pikachu on it? Maybe Nintendo / Pokemon / Pikachu have fallen out of favor with the population". Maybe then one of the people having this incredibly unnatural conversation would look up Pokemon on Wikipedia on their iPhone and see that it is still alive and well.
On the other hand, what if some serial killer were to start murdering people, and imprinting Pokemon Stamp Rally stamps on their cheeks? The cops would look at their Stamp Rally map and be like, "The next murder will be Zubat — in Sugamo!" It'd be all over the news. Then Nintendo would issue a no-comment that speaks a thousand words — of their sympathy for the victims' families, of their firm belief that their series is about critical thinking and maturity, about nothing that has anything to do with this murderer.
There's a phrase that goes "there's no such thing as bad publicity". Maybe not — though in my experience, there's no publicity better than that which isn't planned.
IT'S FOR KIDS
The goals of the Pokemon marketing campaign, as far as I can tell, are
1. To get kids to ask their parents to buy them Pokemon games
2. To get parents to realize "this Pokemon is a big deal", and then buy it for their children
The plushies, movies and television series promote goal #1; the airplanes and bullet trains promote goal #2.
Goal #2, when carried out, gives us Pokemon-addicted kids, who then start asking their parents to buy them more Pokemon games, or even video games in general.
One thing very much to Nintendo's advantage is that their audience is constantly refreshing. If the typical Pokemon player is between five and twelve (so they say), and most kids hooked at nine will still be playing at eighteen (not yet completely proven), then they are exceedingly lucky that kids are turning five years old all the time. Also, children require a parent's supervision to see a movie in a theater, so that means more ticket sales.
A brief history of kleptomania (in video games):
Why did Japanese video games come to be so much about Getting Everything? This is an interesting question with a half-interesting answer. I've worked in the "Japanese games industry" for a while now, and have had the pleasure of discussing all facets of game development with many people behind games that I appreciate. I won't name any names, though some people have given me some amazing insight.
Way back in the 1980s, Nintendo was trying hard to outlaw game rental in Japan. They managed to succeed. What stingy consumers started doing was buying games, clearing them, and then selling them back to used shops as soon as they could. Sometimes, an interesting-looking game would come out, and a potential buyer would decide to wait for a used copy. (Maybe this sounds familiar.) A used copy doesn't amount to any money for the developer or publisher — just for the shop.
So what game developers started doing was
1. Making games needlessly difficult
2. Padding games with artificial barriers such as level-grinding, side quests, etc
It's no tinfoil-hat theory that many of the conventions of the Japanese RPG were born out of publisher mandates such as "keep people from selling the game back in the first two weeks". Dragon Quest drew customers in with neat box art by a hot artist, and kept them around with its artificial barriers. Dragon Quest was a miracle, because its writing and flow kept players at least engaged. The world would see many players reject other RPGs like so many bad kidney transplants — maybe the characters weren't appealing, or the act of grinding just wasn't fun.
At their best, early Japanese RPGs left the player feeling some sort of sentimental "ownership" over the world within the game. Shigeru Miyamoto had once said that games should be like "playgrounds" that you "want to go back to". You wouldn't sell such a playground to the bookstore on the corner for two dollars, would you?
In the first decade of the RPG, a certain sub-class of individuals were born who genuinely enjoyed the finest logistics of the format. This is how we got Pokemon, which turned into obviously the biggest thing ever, by capitalizing on the child's need to collect anything and everything by tying said need to interesting monsters in an idiosyncratic World of Fun. Upping the ante and increasing the success of Pokemon has been simple math ever since — just keep stacking up the monsters, removing as little as possible. That the series is appealing to adults as well is no huge surprise, seeing as it is made by adults.
The social question:
Shigeru Miyamoto, though he did not create Pokemon, apparently was responsible for championing the multiplayer focus. This got kids to enjoy competing with one another's hand-picked lineups of carefully trained monsters. This is what made the game a hit among grade schoolers and a dirty secret for adults.
It's been said, many times, in many ways, that Pokemon appeals to the summer-vacation-loving Japanese instinct to raise beetles and pit them against one another in "combat". Who knows if ths is true. I hold this suspicion-like belief that the Japanese urges to work hard and support one's family grew out of the thrill of saving up to buy a Copper Sword in Dragon Quest, though maybe I'm wrong about that (lol).
When Pokemon at last took over the entire world, even His Holiness The Pope saw fit to talk about it. He dared not speak out against it; seeing as it didn't encourage any belief in "magic", it was fit for kids to play, and even taught teamwork and critical thinking.
Turn on an episode of the TV show, and you'll see the hero profusely thanking an old man: "Thank you so much, sir! I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't told me that water Pokemon are strong against earth Pokemon!"
On the one hand, we have a show teaching kids to respect their elders; on the other hand, the so-called "critical thinking" skills it improves are rooted firmly in the logic of the game world.
What good is this doing the world, really? Well, hell, it probably doesn't matter — it's making a conglomerate of people and their immediate families very wealthy and healthy.
Back to the stamp rally:
I once worked with a guy who took his kid on the Pokemon Stamp Rally. This was a couple of years ago. He was asleep at his desk at lunch on Monday. "I took my son on this Pokemon Stamp Rally thing this weekend", he explained. We were working the first week of August; his wife had the first week off, so she was taking the kid around to the stations he'd missed. He told me they'd gotten forty stations in one day before he'd had enough.
"Man, wasn't it, you know, boring?"
"Well, I don't get much of a chance to spend time with my kid these days."
His kid was six.
"Well, why don't you, like, take him out and learn to throw a baseball? Or take him to a baseball game? Or go to the pool?"
"Well, he . . . said he wanted to do this Pokemon thing."
I wanted to say something, though I couldn't think of anything that didn't sound mean or unforgiving. "Maybe you should have done something earlier to impress your child with the glory of going to a ball game", etc. My coworker went on.
"Plus, it's, you know, good for the kid to get out of the house. He can, uhh, learn something."
As I stood at Otsuka Station last Sunday watching kids racing to get their stamps and then racing back to the train, I thought about this guy. What are these kids learning? Just fifty meters from the place the Pokemon Stamp Rally Official Rally Counter is located, you can find a block of shops advertising oral sex for anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 yen. The kids are learning the names of train stations, and their relative locations, though what do they learn beyond that? Rather than learn to associate Harajuku with excellent hair salons and/or a flagship Adidas sportswear store, they are learning that it's where you get a Geodude stamp. And then, on the other side of this perhaps-many-sided coin, there's me, looking at this map, realizing that I know nothing about Hachioji aside from the fact that it's where you can get the Mewtwo stamp.
In search of a devil's advocate, I engaged a regularly confrontational friend in conversation. "They're kids, man. God, you can be so petty." I tried to get this friend to discuss the ramifications of marketing with me, and he wouldn't have any of it. "I don't see what's wrong with Pikachu being on the side of a jet. Man, just let people do their jobs." I tried to explain how creepy it was that Pikachu and jets had nothing to do with each other, that, as it was their coexistence was like two plastic-coated mattresses slowly rubbing against each other in a vacuum. "Look, man, those marketing people have to do something. If they don't, how are they going to feel good about themselves?"
I suppose he's right. I suppose everyone is right. Me, though, I can't help thinking of that One Guy in every office, who does absolutely nothing year-round, just keeps a spreadsheet open on his desktop, tweaking his mouse scroll wheel a little bit up and then a little bit down every thirteen seconds. Then, there's a big party at a terrible loud restaurant, and some executives are in attendance. Everyone sits down, and this guy — this nothing-doer — grabs the menu up, stands up halfway, counts heads loudly, then yells "Who doesn't want a beer?" Two people raise their hands. "That's forty-four beers, then! Also, we'll have, some, uhh, some edamame beans, some fried squid ring-things, some, of this fried cartilage, and, uhh, forty-six yakitori sticks!" The executive in attendance nods. He's definitely not going to fire this man before the beers arrive, and by the time he's had that first delicious sip, he'll have forgotten about wondering what this man does all day. The next day, the earnest man who sits next to the nothing-doer, in the middle of the meeting, says "So kids like collecting Pokemon, and creepy men like amassing encyclopedic knowledge about train stations. Both are hobbies that contain elements of kleptomania. Why not combine them in a gaudy promotional campaign that helps no one, and hurts no one!" "I don't like the sound of 'non profit'", says one stone-faced executive. "I don't dislike the sound of 'no-loss'". And there you have it. Because, like many other things, "Why not?"
Time flows on, and here we are, alive, In The World, and the boomboxes outside the pachinko parlors get louder with every passing day. A friend in real estate once told me: "The percentage of buildings that, at some point, become pachinko parlors and then change again into something other than a pachinko parlor is downright microscopic."
So I typed all this up, and then entered "Pokemon Stamp Rally 2009" into Yahoo Auctions. Here's what came up. Yes, that is a 2009 Pokemon Stamp Rally book with all the stamps filled out. A quick look at the seller's profile reveals that they are selling two such books. Keep in mind that participants in the "rally" stand to win a "prize" for filling out all the stamps. Why they would to pay money for the book and not the prize is a notion that is lost on me personally; however, that notion evokes a deep catharsis: despite my initial disgust, I am filled to the swelling point with a deep (and unwanted) understanding. On the other hand, I have this feeling that some jerkoff saw this stamp rally thing and saw an opportunity to fill out a dozen stamp books and sell them for $40 each to the kinds of kids who hold their parents at knife-point until they get their Christmas presents on the day after Thanksgiving. Remember last year, when Namco was selling level-ups for their game Tales of Vesperia via Xbox Live? It's like that — only in real life. (And with Pokemon.) Either we give up now, or it's going to already be too late in about ten minutes.
Thank you for reading this. If you feel like you got something out of it, that's fantastic.
I am supposed to be writing something about anything every month; this month, I chose to write about everything. In the comments on this article, feel free to recommend topics or themes for me to write about in the future.