Pokemon Go debuts in Japan

Yuji Nakamura and Takashi Amano

Pokemon Go is finally appearing where it all began: Japan.

After captivating users in the U.S., Australia and some parts of Europe, the smartphone app is now officially available for Apple and Android devices in the country that gave birth to the Pokemon franchise two decades ago. The release comes two weeks after the game made its chart-topping debut overseas, triggering a worldwide phenomenon that added as much as $20 billion to the market value of Nintendo Co. Shares rose as much as 6.9 percent in Tokyo.

For Japan’s legions of Pokemon fans, the wait hasn’t been easy. Even though the country is the second-most lucrative market for smartphone apps, Japanese gamers had to sit and watch as 35 other countries, including Malta and Luxembourg, became virtual playgrounds for Pokemon trainers hunting virtual monsters on streets and in parks.

The companies behind the game have tried to placate their waiting fans with messages of support, including a song written by one of Pokemon’s composers, asking fans for their patience. The release comes within days of the start of Japan’s summerschool holidays, which usually begin in late July.

“Everyone had been waiting for this,” said Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at Ace Research Institute. “There’s no doubt it will be popular in Japan as well.”

Nintendo, which holds stakes in Pokemon Co. and the game’s developer Niantic Inc., saw its stock almost double through Thursday following the game’s debut in the U.S. Its market value today is more than $38 billion, exceeding the likes of Tesla Motors Inc. and Sony Corp.

Within two hours of the release, dozens of people could be seen playing it around Tokyo railway station.

“I saw news on the Internet two days ago, but couldn’t download it," said Hirokazu Kikuchi, who was visiting the nation’s capital with his son from Tochigi prefecture. “We’re going to play it while visiting Tokyo this weekend.”

The app’s releaseduring morning hours gave many a chance to try it during their lunch breaks.

"After seeing all the excitement in New York, I wanted to actually play and see what the hype is all about," Keita Nakagawa, who works in an office by the station, said on his way to lunch while fiddling with his smartphone. “The huge jump in Nintendo’s share price also got me curious.”

Even prior to the release, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Thursday warned players to use the game in a safe manner. A government agency also released a nine-point guide, including advice against staying out in the summer heat for too long and being aware of natural disasters such as tsunamis while playing outside. “They barely used any money on marketing, but because of comments from the likes of Suga the amount of attention had been rising,” Yasuda said.

McDonald’s Holdings Co. (Japan), which began selling Pokemon-themed meals and is expected to launch a marketing campaign through the app, jumped as much as 9.1 percent.The company confirmed it is the exclusive partner for the app and will have more than 2,500 of its stores as PokeStops’ and 400 stores as PokeGyms’ in the game. Its stock has jumped more than 20 percent since Pokemon Go launched.

Shares of related companies also rose, including electronic parts makers Hosiden Corp., which Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. said may be producing an accessory for Pokemon Go, also rose more than 9 percent.

The U.S. was the world’s biggest market for smartphone apps during the second quarter, followed by Japan, according to researcher App Annie. China, which has limited access to Google’s Play Store, was third while South Korea was fourth. It is unclear when Pokemon Go will be released in China and South Korea, where access to geographical data necessary for the game is restricted by the government.

“We wanted to build a game that would inspire people to go outside, get exercise, discover new places and have fun with their friends,” Niantic Chief Executive Officer John Hanke said in a video posted with the release. “Pokemon is a beautiful franchise which originated in Japan. When you go out to play, keep your head up, look around, enjoy the world around you and be safe.”

With assistance from Monami Yui