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'Pokemon Go' brings high hopes for boosting economy, social concerns

A railway worker puts up a poster warning passengers not to use their smartphones while walking at JR Shinjuku Station on July 22, 2016. (Mainichi)

The release of the popular smartphone game application "Pokemon Go" on July 22 has raised hopes for its economic effects as well as concerns that a growing number of people will use their smartphones to play the game while walking.

Some businesses have tied up with the "Pokemon Go" app in a bid to take advantage of the popular game to attract customers.

In many other countries, however, there have been accidents involving people playing the game on their smartphones while walking. Police and railway operators are struggling to implement measures to prevent such accidents.

On the afternoon of July 22, many people were seen playing "Pokemon Go" on their smartphones around McDonald's outlets across Japan.

McDonald's Japan announced the details of its tie-up with "Pokemon Go" on that day. Customers can purchase items that will help them win the game at some 2,500 of its outlets across the country At about 400 of its stores, customers can enjoy playing Pokemon Go with other customers.

Shota Tanaka, 18, a university student who was at the fast-food chain's Nakano Central Park outlet, said, "Since my childhood, I've enjoyed Pokemon. It's exciting that a character suddenly pops up on the screen."

An official of McDonald's Japan's public relations division expressed hope that its tie-up with "Pokemon Go" will draw people to its outlets. The price of McDonald's Japan shares rose following the tie-up announcement as investors expect that the number of its customers will increase. The closing price of McDonald's Japan shares on July 22 came to 3,620 yen, up 4 percent from a day earlier.

The game app is also hoped to draw tourists to rural areas. Takuya Hirai, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party Special Mission Committee on IT Strategy, told a panel meeting that a neighborhood association on a remote island is planning to use Pokemon Go to attract tourists to the island. "The app easily fits in with remote islands and those who are on a multi-site pilgrimage of 88 temples (in Shikoku associated with Buddhist monk Kukai). The game could encourage people to visit these areas," he told reporters after the meeting.

Overseas businesses have taken advantage of the game app to attract customers. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops are trying to encourage passers-by to enter their establishments saying, "Pokemon inside."

Although "Pokemon Go" has not yet been released in South Korea, it recently came to light that the app can be used in some areas of the northeastern part of the country. Bus tours of the area to play "Pokemon Go" are highly popular in South Korea, according to local news media.

Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute Inc., predicted the release of the game app will produce large economic effects because of its popularity.

"If more people go out to look for Pokemon, it will increase consumer spending because these people will pay for transportation and meals," he said. "If local bodies organize regional Pokemon tours, it will help vitalize local economies. Its economic effects are far larger than other games, whose benefits are limited to those generated by relevant goods."

However, there have been many accidents overseas involving those immersed in playing the game, raising concerns about similar accidents in Japan.

Kazuhiro Kozuka, professor of traffic engineering at Aichi University of Technology, who is well versed in risks involving using smartphones while walking, warns that people's vision while using smartphones is extremely narrow.

"If you walk empty handed, your line of vision naturally moves three to four meters from side to side. But when you're operating smartphones, you only look ahead occasionally," he said.

He pointed out that a person who was operating a smartphone on a railway station platform in an experiment was unaware of an infant who passed by him only about 50 centimeters away.

The Metropolitan Police Department distributed leaflets near the west entrance to JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo on July 22, urging people not to use smartphones while walking.

A 76-year-old woman who was at the scene said, "I'd like to tell my grandchildren who are junior high and high school students not to operate their smartphones while walking."

East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) has asked the co-developer of the game app to take measures to prevent those playing the game on their smartphones from falling onto train tracks or posing a danger to other passengers at its stations.

The producer of the game app has explained no character will appear on railway tracks or while players are traveling on trains. However, there is a possibility that characters will pop up while players are at railway stations.

JR East has produced posters asking passengers to pay close attention to the safety of other passengers as well as their own safety while playing the game at stations.

Visually-impaired people have expressed concerns about such accidents. Shoichi Kudo, a blind man and high-ranking official of the Japan Federation of the Blind, fears that the release of Pokemon Go could increase accidents involving those using smartphones while walking.

"The number of cases in which I was accidentally hit by those using smartphones while walking has sharply increased over the past several years," he said. "I'm already nervous when I walk out. I'm worried that the number of those who use smartphones while walking will increase."

Nintendo Co. producer of the original Pokemon game, is working to prevent such accidents. The company will release "Pokemon Go Plus," a watch-shaped device that informs users that Pokemon are nearby, within this month. If users press the button at the center of the device, there is a possibility they can capture Pokemon, according to company officials.

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