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A Chicken in Every Pocket
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 25, 1997; Page A01
TOKYO, Jan. 24 -- By dawn today, a line of almost 2,000 people stretched a quarter of a mile through the Ginza shopping district. Hundreds of them had spent the night camped out on the sidewalk in the numbing midwinter cold.
When you want a toy chicken badly enough, you will endure anything.
"It is my responsibility to nurture it and help it grow; if I do not, its face will turn vicious and it will become a gangster chicken, then it will die," homemaker Kwon Myong Mi, 33, said earnestly, explaining why she waited hours in line to pay $18 for a Tamagocchi, the hottest new fad tearing across Japan.
The Tamagocchi, which translates as "cute little egg," is a key-chain computer game about the size and shape of an egg. The game starts when an egg on the display screen hatches and a chicken is born. The owner then uses three tiny buttons to feed, play with, clean up after and discipline it. Unlike most video games that are over in a few minutes, this one can go on for days.
With proper care, the chicken grows. If the owner forgets to feed it, it sounds a loud "peep peep peep" of complaint. If the chicken poops and the owner doesn't clean up, it peeps even louder. The owner can tickle it with the press of a button, or take its temperature and give it injections of "medicine" if it seems ill.
Ignore the chicken, drop it on the subway, forget it at home or neglect to tickle it often enough, and it will grow sickly and mean-looking. Eventually it will die. Game over. The implication: You loser. You can't even keep a fake chicken alive.
More than 500,000 Tamagocchis have been sold since they were introduced two months ago by Bandai Co., the huge Japanese toymaker famous for its Power Rangers. Tamagocchis have become the Tickle Me Elmos of Japan, selling for upward of $500 for those lucky enough to find one.
But unlike the giggling Elmo doll, Tamagocchis are not just for the young. Middle-aged "salarymen" play with them on the subway. Some companies are raising Tamagocchi chickens as a group project; meetings stop when the chicken peeps for its lunch. An actress being interviewed recently on a television talk show accidentally dropped a Tamagocchi out of her pocket; she explained with an embarrassed smile that she couldn't part with the chicken because it needed her constant care.
It would be easy to dismiss the Tamagocchi as a peculiar Japanese quirk. But American entrepreneurs and toy companies are watching closely. Remember: Other fads that started in Japan include the transistor radio, Power Rangers, Nintendo and the Sony Walkman. A Bandai spokesman today said the company was starting to look at "international markets" -- spell that U-S-A.
The Tamagocchi buzz is so fierce these days that when word leaked out yesterday that the Hakuhinkan Toy Park had received a shipment of 1,700 and was going to sell them today, there was pandemonium.
"If one person has it, everyone has to have it. That's the way it is in Japan," said Nami Tanaka, 22, a dental nurse who traveled 90 minutes from her home, then camped out on the sidewalk from 10 p.m. Thursday until she finally got her little blue-and-pink Tamagocchi at 9:30 this morning.
Tanaka's friend Ayami Kanayama, 21, a college student, said she'd called every toy store in Tokyo for more than a week, waiting for word on Tamagocchis. When Hakuhinkan finally said it would have some this morning, she and Tanaka spent the night on the sidewalk. Several hundred people who didn't come early enough were turned away without a Tamagocchi.
Fads in Japan spread faster than a Washington rumor, and they tend to be very specific. There are dozens of key-chain video games, but only the Tamagocchi is causing a frenzy. "It's bigger than SMAP," said Mi, the homemaker, referring to a Japanese singing group that sets teenage girls screaming the way the Beatles did in their time.
In this metropolitan area of 30 million, there is barely enough room for the humans, let alone animals. Many people rent pets as weekend companions; others buy a dog or cat but leave it at the pet shop, stopping by now and then to take it for a walk. So computerized pets have been around for a while -- "virtual" dogs or cats that are fed and cared for with the click of a computer mouse.
"Many in the younger generation want to have nice soft pets, but they don't want to clean up after them and do the other hard parts," said Rieko Zanma, an essayist who writes about modern Japanese society. "The Tamagocchi is not a living creature, so it gives them satisfaction on a very `virtual' level, which has been instilled in young people today."
Widgets and gizmos have always been big sellers here -- the smaller and cuter the better. So the idea of raising a pet, even one as uncuddly as a chicken, on a little key-chain device that you can play with on a crowded subway is endlessly appealing.
"It's fun, it's interesting and it's simple; depending on how I nurture it, it will grow up to be a nice chicken or a bad chicken," said Nobuyuki Tanabe, 16, a high school student who skipped school to wait in line for one.
The Tamagocchi is so new that no one seems to know how long any single chicken will live. Mi said she had a friend who raised one for many days. "That was a good chicken," she said.
Kwon said she planned to do her best to raise an honorable chicken, too. But she knows there are no guarantees in life, real or electronic: "Some chickens are born to be good," she said. "And some are born to be bad."