A few customers sneak into a card shop just before closing time in Akihabara, Tokyo.

Pokémon fever once again grips fans around the world

The 27-year-old Japanese trading card franchise has exploded in popularity in recent years, leading to frenzied fans, collectors and Pokémon card players fighting for the best cards.

Masashi Ikeda, a store manager at a trading card chain in Tokyo, Japan, said the store has recently ramped up security to prevent theft of precious Pokémon trading cards.  

“We try to make it really difficult to steal cards by also using dummy cards,” he said. “So, if someone smashes the glass, nothing of value is taken.” 

The 27-year-old Japanese trading card franchise has exploded in popularity in recent years, leading to frenzied fans, collectors and Pokémon card players fighting for the best cards.

Pokémon cards are displayed in a glass cabinet. High-value cards are marked as
Pokémon cards are displayed in a glass cabinet. High-value cards are marked as “dummy cards.” Thisanka Siripala/The World

A pack of Pokémon cards costs about $1.40 in Japan, and they usually come in a set of four cards in a sealed foil packet. Scoring a rare card in a pack is like winning a golden Willy Wonka ticket. 

Rare and ultra-rare cards of the characters Pikachu and Charizard are in high demand all over the world. In 2022, a rare Pikachu card sold privately for a record $900,000. 

Japan’s Pokémon trading cards are more than just cute characters on paper. Each card features a unique character with distinct strengths and abilities, and players gather at trading card shops across Tokyo to compete in high-level tournaments called “battles.” Each player brings 60 of their strongest cards and the goal is to knock each Pokémon out.

The shops also host weekly Pokémon practice sessions called “gyms” to prepare for these battles.

Players gather to
Players gather to “battle” at a card shop in Shibuya, Tokyo.Thisanka Siripala/The World

Trading cards are just one part of the massive worldwide Pokémon franchise — there’s anime, feature films and video, and smartphone games like Pokémon GO. The Japanese company is worth a staggering $118 billion.

And Pokémon isn’t just for children. Tokyo’s trading card stores attract mostly college-age students, adults and a lot of businessmen.

Charlier Hurlocker, a US-based Pokémon card expert, said the average age of a Pokémon card collector is typically between 25 to 35. He said these adults were part of the first generation of kids to consume Pokémon when it was first released. He predicts that the number of Pokémon card players will only increase as this generation has children.

Pokémon’s shift from subculture to mainstream has created a shortage and made card shops a target for robbery. There is also a problem of counterfeits and scalping. 

Hurlocker said prices are skyrocketing because they’ve become a financial investment. 

“Most of the buyers that we see from Saudi Arabia, they see that as an investment,” he said. “In the United States, they see it as half-investment, half-nostalgia. And the Chinese buyers, they have a cultural desire to take possession of cultural relics.”

Pokémon cards can be purchased at vending machines. 
Pokémon cards can be purchased at vending machines. Thisanka Siripala/The World

The Pokémon company announced that they are focusing on reprinting cards to ease supply shortages. Between March 2021 and 2022, the company doubled its production to a whopping 9 billion cards. 

But Hurlocker said supply is not keeping up with demand — the company is cautious about over-supplying the market.

“The machines they are printed on are highly specialized,” he said. “They cost millions of dollars and they take years and years and years to produce.”

Hurlocker said an overproduction of Pokémoncards would be disastrous for small trading card businesses. 

“In the past, some card sets were really undesirable. Lots of people lost money and it could mean card retailers go out of business,” he said. 

Because of the shortage, animosity is growing between people who play Pokémon cards and those who collect just for the investment.

Hasebon-san is a true Pokémon card fanatic. The official Pokémon Japan website even featured him as an original, hard-core collector.  

He blamed investors for causing hyperinflation and cut-throat competition for cards. He said he feels bad for anyone who just wants to start playing the game.

“Pokémon cards are in such short supply that they are hard to buy now and people who really want to play Pokémon can’t,“ he said. 

For Hasebon-san, retailers selling used cards are part of the problem.

“Resellers make their profit by selling at a high price,” he said. “If everyone who wants to buy the product could buy them, there wouldn’t be a need to buy from resellers.”

Hasebon-san said he wants the Pokémon company to slow the release of new cards in order to cool down the market. 

But trading card retailers like Masashi Ikeda are relishing in the current boom.

“The reason why we are making a profit now,” he said, “this is because the exchange between individuals and e-commerce sites is so heated that dealers like us are enjoying a good time. If that goes down, we’ll be affected.” 

Just like the message in the Pokémon theme song, competition is part of the game, even if it tests your finances.

Related: A Jewish folk song is preserved in a Japanese video game

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