Monster hunters descend upon California’s Japantowns with ‘Pokemon Go’


POKEMON DIGITAL MONSTERS ­— (Far left) Users navigate the world looking for Pokemon through their GPS location and (middle) attempt to catch them when they appear. screenshot by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Since the July 6 release of the “Pokemon Go” app for the iOS and Android devices, millions of users have downloaded the game to catch the popular Japanese video game monsters. The game has become a social phenomenon as reports users have, on a daily average, spent more time on the app over Facebook and surpassed more than 15 million downloads since its launch.

Users who have downloaded the app search for the digital monsters by tracking them via a GPS map on their smart phones. Once a Pokemon appears on the screen, players attempt to catch them. Ultimately, users aim to collect and train all 151 unique monsters.

Some users have grown so invested in the game, that they have even complained about having sore legs from walking around to catch the pocket-sized monsters. Police have also issued safety advisories, warning people to avoid trespassing and refrain from driving while playing.

The game was developed by Niantic Inc., a San Francisco-based company headed by John Hanke. Hanke, in partnership with Nintendo and The Pokemon Company, developed the “augmented reality” game using the popular video game franchise. His history with the technology behind the game, however, dates back more than a decade. According to a profile published by the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, Hanke, a 1996 graduate of the school, helped create the technology behind Google Earth, Google Maps and Google StreetView. This work ultimately led to the development of “Pokemon Go” and Hanke’s first augmented reality game, “Ingress.”

Both “Ingress” and “Pokemon Go” use artistic, cultural or historical landmarks in the real world as destinations for players. Known as “Pokestops” and “gyms” in “Pokemon Go,” players must physically visit these locations to either get items or battle with their Pokemon. With a concentration of churches, statues and public art in California’s Japantowns, many players have descended on the ethnic enclaves to catch and raise Pokemon.

POKEMON DIGITAL MONSTERS ­— (Far left) Users navigate the world looking for Pokemon through their GPS location and (middle) attempt to catch them when they appear. screenshot by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly
POKEMON DIGITAL MONSTERS ­— (Far left) Users navigate the world looking for Pokemon through their GPS location and (middle) attempt to catch them when they appear. screenshot by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Jessette Novero, co-owner of Aloha Warehouse on Buchanan Mall in San Francisco’s Japantown, said she has noticed the players. “They all congregate in front like this,” she said, holding her phone up to her face and flicking the screen, mimicking how players catch the digital monsters.

The Ruth Asawa-designed Fountain in front of her store is one of the game’s Pokestops. While there has been increased foot traffic to Japantown, this hasn’t necessarily translated to a boost in sales for many merchants. Novero said most players move along to the next Pokestop instead of stopping to shop. Similarly, employees at the neighboring Benkyodo said they have not noticed any uptick in sales either.

While the National Japanese American Historical Society is another Pokestop in Japantown, its employees are unsure if the app has led to an increase in visitors. Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of the historical society, said more people have been visiting the gallery from out of town, but she was unsure if it was because of “Pokemon Go.”

“I heard you don’t have to come inside to capture your Pokemon,” she wrote in an e-mail. Regardless, she said she thinks it is a great idea for the Pokestops to be points of historic interest.

“It would be nice to get more folks to come inside because of the app,” Tonai added.

For Mitsu Teahouse in the Japan Center East Mall, the app has proven to be a lucrative opportunity. Amy Chung, assistant manager at the boba tea store, said the store offered a 10 percent discount to “Pokemon Go” players during the San Francisco Anime and Cosplay Festival, which took place July 16. “It was really popular,” she said. “I was surprised how many people play the game, both young and old.”

Similarly in San Jose’s Japantown, Kathy Sakamoto, executive director of the Japantown Business Association, said many people who attended the community’s annual Obon festival July 9 and 10 had their phones out to play the game. She said the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin was a “hot spot” and many people were walking around the neighborhood playing.

Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo has also become a destination for players, said local resident Randy Masada. He added that the neighborhood has several stops, including its statues, churches and temples, as well as locations in the bordering arts district. “I’ve seen a lot of people walking around on their phones throughout the day,” he said in an e-mail.

“Mainly on their lunch breaks or at night … The good thing is it’s bringing traffic to certain areas of Little Tokyo and I’m sure it’s bringing business as well.”

Little Tokyo may have only seen the tip of the iceberg, however, as the Little Tokyo Anime Club reports it is organizing a “Pokemon Go Little Tokyo Event” for Saturday, July 30.

The club, which is less than a year old, has about 30 members, but on Facebook, the event has more than 4,600 confirmed guests, with another 17,000 people interested in attending it. “The idea (for the event) came up right when we saw the trailer (for the app) for the first time, since it shows a group of people meeting up (and) catching Pokemon,”

Ariel Delgado, co-founder of the club, said in an e-mail. She went on to say that she plans to include “an art contest, a cosplay contest, Pokemon trading card tournament, scavenger hunt, Pokemon hunting at Grand Park (a park near Little Tokyo)” and other games for attendees.

San Francisco was also awash with players. According to a Facebook event page for the “Pokemon Go Crawl” in the city, more than 9,000 people planned to walk down Market Street with more than 29,000 more people showing interest in attending the July 20 event.

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