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'Pokemon Go' players in Japan catching life partners as game marks 3rd anniversary

Plush dolls of Pikachu in a wedding dress and suit and a welcome sign decorate a reception desk on the day Shibu and Lily held their wedding party. (Photo courtesy of Shibu)
Racks display Pikachu and Eeevee-themed merchandise at Pokemon Center Mega Tokyo at Sunshine City, in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, on July 25, 2019. (Mainichi/Rei Oikawa)

TOKYO -- "We shared experiences together in many places," said a man sporting a brown wedding waistcoat as he stood alongside his wife, who was decked out in a yellow dress -- the same respective colors as "Pokemon" characters Eevee and Pikachu.

That was back in November 2018, when the now 31-year-old Shibu and 27-year-old Lily, both usernames, held their wedding reception in the capital's Minato Ward. The couple have something in common with a number of others who have recently tied the knot: they succeeded in finding the love of their lives through the popular "Pokemon Go" smartphone game, which recently marked its third anniversary since its release in Japan on July 22, 2016.

(Mainichi)

Marriages have been on the decline in Japan, and not just as a result of the declining population. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS) says the majority of married couples got to know each other at their workplace, school, or through a mutual friend. But "I choose you!" opportunities are decreasing nowadays. According to a survey IPSS conducted in 2015, most men and women between their late 20s and early 30s said they had chosen to be single because they hadn't met the right person.

-- First encounter in Odaiba

Shibu and Lily met for the first time in Tokyo's Odaiba district, a little more than a month after the release of "Pokemon Go." In the game, players use GPS to locate, catch, collect, battle and train various Pokemon or "Pocket Monsters," which appear to be in real-world locations due to the game's augmented reality technology.

The two were among a group of some 30 people who gathered in Odaiba on the evening of Aug. 27, 2016 to catch a rare Pokemon called Lapras. Located at the edge of Tokyo Bay, Odaiba was known at the time as a place where many rare Pokemon were likely to appear, and a bunch of players who exchanged information about the game via Twitter used to hang out in the area.

A life-sized Unicorn Gundam Statue is seen at a park where "Pokemon Go" player Shibu and Lily caught Lapras on the first day they met, in Tokyo's Koto Ward, on July 6, 2019. (Mainichi/Kazushi Machidori)

"Lapras was one of my old favorites, so I really wanted to catch it," Lily recalled. Shibu asked Lily which Pokemon she had yet to capture, which sparked their first conversation. With a group of a few people, the two walked around a park near the bay to find Lapras, but the sky began to grow dim without the players having any luck.

Lily began walking to the station to head back home shortly past 11:30 p.m. when suddenly her gaming friend sent a message on Twitter to tell her that Lapras had appeared in a nearby park where the first life-sized Unicorn Gundam Statue stood. But Lily knew that if she went to the park, she would miss her last train home.

"It was a hard choice, but my main goal that day was to catch Lapras," recalled Lily, who finally captured the Pokemon at 11:59 p.m. along with fellow "Pokemon Go" players including Shibu. In the end Lily and other players stayed up all night to find more rare Pokemon.

Shibu, right, and Lily show their smartphones displaying the "Pokemon Go" game in Tokyo, on July 2, 2019. (Mainichi/Kazushi Machidori)

-- Hunting for characters

Shibu, who currently organizes projects for his IT firm, has loved to play games ever since he was in junior high and high school. He especially liked playing "Pokemon Gold Version" and "Pokemon Silver Version," the first installments of the second generation of the "Pokemon" game series, released in 1999.

When he began playing "Pokemon Go" right after its release, Shibu was driven by the urge to register more characters on his Pokedex -- an electronic dictionary featured in the game, which players aim to complete by collecting all species of Pokemon.

"I wanted to register more Pokemon on my Pokedex, so I started looking for them at the park from the very next day," he recalls.

Lily, meanwhile, works in a management division at a consulting firm. From her childhood days she "had been playing games, but didn't go as far as becoming an obsessive gamer." She had started playing "Pokemon Go" thinking that "it wouldn't outperform the previous 'Pokemon' games." However, she spent more and more time on the game as her motivation to complete her Pokedex increased.

Pikachu-themed wedding invitation letters are sold at Sunshine City, in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, on July 25, 2019. (Mainichi/Rei Oikawa)

-- Super-effective moves

After their first encounter in Odaiba, Shibu and Lily, who lived and worked near each other, began to hang out after work and on weekends in search of new Pokemon. "It's more fun to play with company, and efficient because we can immediately share information about the Pokemon we just captured," explained Shibu. He added that at the beginning the two "only thought of each other as a fellow 'Pokemon Go' player".

As time went by, Shibu and Lily discovered that they both had experienced living abroad when they were younger and had more things in common. Lily had many hobbies such as going to symphonies, and for Shibu, she was that someone who could let him into a new world.

Two Pikachu figures are seen on top of a three-tier wedding cake when Shibu and Lily held their wedding reception. (Photo courtesy of Shibu)

Shibu confessed his love for Lily about two months later, and they started going out. Though they sometimes went to eat, about seven out of every 10 dates centered on "Pokemon Go," because "you can always do something while playing 'Pokemon Go,'" according to Shibu. In October 2017, he proposed to Lily.

Luckily, Shibu had earned the trust of Lily's parents thanks to the game. Lily had lived with her parents before she got married, and her parents, who are in their 50s and still working, became obsessed with "Pokemon Go" due to her influence. She says they are "now more devoted" to the game than she is.

As players benefit from cooperating with each other in a new form of battle that was introduced to the game in June 2017, Lily's parents began to ask for Shibu's cooperation when they wanted to join a battle. In those situations, Lily would send an invitation message to Shibu via the free messaging app Line, and Shibu would take about 10 minutes on his bicycle to come over. Through his super-effective moves, not only did Shibu capture new Pokemon, but he also captured the hearts of Lily's parents.

Lapras, center right, as well as Pichu and Cleffa, bottom row fourth and third from right, respectively, are seen on a large poster showing popular "Pokemon" characters on display at Sunshine City, in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, on July 25, 2019. (Mainichi/Rei Oikawa)

-- A Pokemon wedding party

Plush dolls of Pichu and Cleffa and even Pikachu in wedding attire, as well as a welcome sign showing a picture of the bride riding Lapras and the groom coming to meet her decorated the reception desk at the couple's wedding party. Two Pikachu figures were placed on top of a three-tier wedding cake, which stood about 50 centimeters high.

Social media posts indicate it is not unusual nowadays for people to get married as a result of bonds formed through "Pokemon Go." Shibu and Lily say they continue to receive as many as three questions a month about their Pokemon-themed wedding ceremony.

Lily received a message in June this year from someone who referenced her Tweet about the wedding party when planning her own wedding ceremony. "I was surprised and I replied, 'Please enjoy it,'" Lily said.

An advertisement promoting a Pokemon-themed bridal fair produced by wedding planner Escrit Inc. showing two Pikachu in a wedding dress and a suit is seen in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, on July 25, 2019. (Mainichi/Rei Oikawa)

-- Going further afield

"Pokemon Go" still has a place within the couple's life. During their honeymoon last November, the couple visited Dubai, a popular tourist spot with the world's tallest building, in the United Arab Emirates. Some 10 men and women Pokemon Go players in their 20s to 40s -- whom Shibu and Lily came to know when they asked on social media about a good place to catch Pokemon in Dubai -- took the couple on a tour around the city.

One of them came to Japan this January, and this time the couple took him on a tour around Kinshicho in Tokyo, which is considered a "sacred site" for the game's fans.

The couple has also been organizing "Pokemon Go" battle contests recently. They succeeded in gathering about 130 players in May.

Shibu, who says he walks the distance of one station after work when there are special events going on in the game, is adamant that "Pokemon Go" has improved his quality of life in the three years he has spent playing it.

He commented, "'Pokemon Go' is a game that can enrich your life. I was able to meet Lily and interact with many people including those residing overseas. I expect that technological developments will lead to more ways to enjoy the game."

(Japanese original by Kazushi Machidori, Integrated Digital News Center)

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