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The $88,000 Pokemon card: Japan speculators drive up trading card prices, freeze out kids

Foil Pokemon cards bought by the author. He put together a deck built around the ever-popular Pikachu, but was knocked out in the first round of a tournament at a card store. (Mainichi/Yuki Takahashi)

TOKYO -- What on Earth is going on in the world of Pokemon trading cards?

    There are lines snaking out of games shops selling the cards in the Japanese capital. Rare cards are selling for over 10 million yen (about $88,000) apiece. And they have transcended collectors' item status to become investment properties.

    A "Pokemon cards sold out" sign is seen at an electronics mass retailer in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on Sept. 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Takahashi)

    Tokyo's Akihabara district is sacred ground to many a subculture, perhaps especially to lovers of gaming and anime. And it is there that I went looking to buy some Pokemon cards in late September. I went to several card shops, but all were sold out. I was told that there are shops giving out numbered tickets to lineups of some 500 people. At one place, shiny rare cards locked tight in glass display cases -- cards priced at 100 yen (about 88 cents) each or less by the manufacturer -- boasted price tags of 250,000 yen, 500,000 yen, 1 million yen (about $2,200, $4,400 and $8,800), and on and on.

    "It's basically a feeding frenzy," one person in the trading card business told me. And prices are soaring to extraordinary heights.

    So, is there any place someone can get Pokemon cards at the price suggested by The Pokemon Co., which actually makes them? When I asked this of a male customer at one shop, he told me the first thing I needed to do was collect information. I retired to a coffee shop and began searching Twitter for shops that sold the cards at a reasonable price. Two hours later, I found one, and managed to buy five 165-yen packs of five cards each.

    Trading cards are meant to be collected or swapped. Pokemon cards are also a huge hit overseas, and an estimated 34.1 billion of them -- more than four times the human population of planet Earth -- have been printed worldwide since the game debuted in Japan in 1996. One of the most sought after these days is the flying, fire-breathing Charizard, called a Lizardon in Japanese, which consistently tops surveys of the most popular cards. Less than 1,000 Charizards were sold in Japan when the game came out a quarter of a century ago, and ones in good condition are selling for more than 10 million yen.

    Twenty-fifth anniversary special edition Pokemon cards are seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Oct. 22, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Takahashi)

    "It's very likely that the price will go over 20 million yen (some $176,000) in the future, but that's just way too much," one source in the trading card industry said.

    Behind the price spike is the growth of the resale market through social media and flea market apps, which made it easy for individual buyers and sellers to get in on the action. There are also popular YouTubers who talk about the cards, and there are a bevy of websites dedicated to Pokemon card valuations and information swapping. The result: people buy the cards hoping their market prices will rise, then sell them off and pocket the margin. These are Pokemon card investors.

    One card shop owner told me, "Thinking in the medium to long-term, so 10 or more years, Pokemon cards will become a kind of asset class."

    A poster is seen at a store in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward displaying the prices the store is willing to pay for certain rare Pokemon cards. Kangaskhan (Garura in Japanese, priced at 4 million yen or about $35,200) and Charizard (Lizardon in Japanese, priced at 1.5 million yen or some $13,200) cards are especially sought after. (Mainichi/Yuki Takahashi)

    But then you can also actually play the game the cards were originally designed for. Card shops often have a "battle booth" section for people to pit their Pokemon decks against one another. Each player deploys and powers up their Pokemon, all of which have their own strengths and abilities, to try and defeat their opponent's. I entered a tournament being held in one shop's battle booths, but entirely failed to get the hang of the nuances, and crashed out in the first round.

    But I also met one of those "Pokemon card investors" at the tournament. The man in his 30s said he works for a major travel agency, "but with the coronavirus pandemic my bonus went to zero, so I started (Pokemon card) investing. I've made almost 1 million yen from it."

    Many of those I saw on the hunt for cards in Akihabara were people in their 20s to 40s who had been Pokemon fans as children. In September, Rakuma, Rakuten Group's flea market application, conducted a survey of more than 8,000 of its users dealing in Pokemon cards, and found that about 40% of them had bought cards "because I got back into characters I really liked as a child." About half of the respondents also said they were in the market for cards now "because I have a lot more buying power now than I did when I was a child."

    Children play a trading card game at a park in Tokyo's Suginami Ward on Nov. 3, 2021. They say they can no longer get the Pokemon cards they want. (Mainichi/Yuki Takahashi)

    But the Pokemon card market frenzy is also putting the cards out of reach for today's children. One primary school third-grade boy playing the game at a park in Tokyo's Suginami Ward told me, "It's really hard to get new cards, so I just can't beat my friends no matter how much I play."

    Desire for the cards has also pushed some people into outright criminality. In September 2021, a man in his 20s was arrested on suspicion of robbery resulting in bodily injury for allegedly punching a university student on a street in Hiroshima and stealing their Pokemon cards. There are also scammers running lotteries claiming paying entrants have a chance to get a rare card, among other fraud schemes.

    A representative of The Pokemon Co. said they are not in a position to comment on the bizarrely high market prices for their cards. But "we will reprint cards that are running short so that people can buy the ones they want at reasonable prices," the company stated.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Takahashi, Business News Department)

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