First Click: How is Pokémon Go still not out in Japan?

June 14th, 2016

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I used to think nothing of importing games from Japan. Treasure just released a new Bangai-O for the DS? And it has a level editor? Sure! It didn’t matter that I didn’t yet speak the language, nor that I could probably get an English version for less money in less than a year. If anything, the layer of mystique and exclusivity added to the appeal — that’s something countless Neko Atsume players discovered last year before the addictive cat-collecting game was localized into English.

The ability to play obscure Nintendo DS games before the rest of the world wasn’t exactly why I moved to Japan in 2008, but let’s say I figured it’d be a nice bonus. And for a while, it was. Somewhere in a box in my closet you’ll find esoteric delights like Slide Adventure: MagKid, which came with an optical mouse-style sensor-equipped stand that moved your character around as you slid it across a table, for example. But as the Western games industry overtook Japan’s in global prominence, I ended up finding myself doing the unthinkable and importing games in the other direction.

And with Pokémon Go currently dominating the world, that’s the situation I find myself in today — except it’s even worse.

Pokémon is one of Japan’s most successful cultural exports, right up there with Hello Kitty and the Tamagotchi. So it may surprise you to learn that not only does Pokémon Go not work in the creatures’ ancestral homeland, it’s been actively locked out. While people in countries like the UK have been able to play Pokémon Go before its local launch by downloading the app from the US store or sideloading it, doing the same in Japan presents you with a map entirely bereft of pokémon. Other than a brief period on Monday that was apparently for testing, there are no Togepi to catch in Tokyo, nor any Houndoom to be found in Hokkaido.

I suspect this is for technical reasons. Pokémon Go has been plagued with server issues in the few countries where it’s formally launched, and the inevitable deluge — believe me, it’ll be a deluge — of Japanese players connecting when the game goes live here will no doubt cause further strain. A Pokémon Company representative didn’t respond to my request for comment on the matter or a possible Japanese release date, but whatever the reason the result is the same: the world is going nuts over a distinctly Japanese phenomenon, yet Japan is left on the outside looking in.

Pokémon Go itself isn’t a Japanese game, to be clear. It’s developed by Niantic Labs, a US company that was once owned by Google, and builds off the blueprint drawn by Niantic’s previous AR game Ingress. It’s not really a Nintendo game, either — the Pokémon series is handled by The Pokémon Company, which Nintendo owns about a third of. The games have historically been exclusive to Nintendo hardware, but it’s a stretch to attribute Pokémon Go’s success to Nintendo.

But none of that makes the Po-Go FOMO any easier to take, especially after recent years have seen dishearteningly late Japanese releases for things across the board. Even the PlayStation 4 came out here three months after the US. From Sony! And you can’t throw a plush pokéball toy in Tokyo without hitting a kid playing X or Y on 3DS or someone wearing a hat with Pikachu ears. It’s an affront to humanity that the people of Japan can’t play Pokémon Go.

At least we got Miitomo first. I guess.

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