YO-Kai Watch: Japan's monster craze set to go international

Move over Pokemon, a legion of new cutesy monsters is haunting Japan and set to break out all over the world after trampling the competition at home.

"YO-Kai Watch" is a nexus of manga comics, anime cartoons and computer games that revolve around the life of a school boy and the monsters -- "Yokai" -- that he summons with his wrist strap.

While the name is unfamiliar in the West, it's already very big business in Japan.

"We bought a lot -- about 20 items -- as we can rarely buy them," Shoji Takayama said as he came out of a store with his wife, two children and a big plastic bag full of toys.

The family spent about 30,000 yen ($280) at YO-Kai Watch Town, a temporary shop on "First Avenue Tokyo Station", a street inside the Japanese capital's main train station.

"It's fun to catch Yokai and become friends," nine-year-old Naoya said of the video games. "The characters are cute," added his sister, Sae, 11.

Such is the demand that tickets to get into the store were distributed in online lotteries, allowing up to 432 people to visit every day.

The first group of customers included an eight-year-old boy who got an early Shinkansen bullet train with his mother from neighbouring Shizuoka prefecture and a middle-aged man with a handheld console in his back pocket.

Yuuichi Ishii, who runs the Toy Cats toy store in Tokyo, said the demographic spread of fans is indicative of how popular the monster-collecting phenomenon has become.

The secret to its success, he says, is its cute characters and the non-violent way the main character interacts with monsters -- defeated ones aren't killed, but become friends.

"It's becoming like a second Pokemon," he said.

- Folklore -

Matt Alt, a pop culture commentator who co-authored "Yokai Attack!" a book detailing the monsters and spooks of Japanese popular culture, says the series draws heavily on folklore archetypes.

"These have been around for hundreds of years as folktales. And now this series has woven them together to make a new sort of content out of them," Alt told AFP.

Protagonist Keita Amano is an "average" fifth-grader (around 10 years old) who happens to get a watch that can summon monsters.

With the assistance of a "butler" monster and friends, he fights beings that trouble humans, beats them and befriends them.

YO-Kai Watch shares with its predecessor Pokemon "a very similar sort of collecting mechanism" said Alt, where the main character battles monsters and then owns them.

"The big difference between YO-Kai Watch and Pokemon, however, is that Pokemon is set in a pure fantasy world... whereas YO-Kai Watch is definitely set in at least a version of Japan," he said.

Events take place in Japanese streets, with children living in Japanese houses and eating Japanese food, he said.

"I think that's one of the reasons it's so popular with kids here, because it makes you feel like these monsters could be just around the corner," he said.

And that appeal is certainly paying off for the manufacturers.

Replica versions of the watch worn by little Keita -- which allow the wearer to insert different medals to produce different sound effects -- are in such short supply that their price has rocketed on online auction sites.

Bandai Namco Holdings said it would produce two million units this year, along with around 100 million medals, contributing to the eye-popping 10 billion yen ($93 million) worth of YO-Kai Watch toys they have sold in the six months from April.

And that's not including software sales.

YO-Kai Watch 2, developed by Level-5 for the Nintendo 3DS handheld console and released in July, saw its sales exceed 2.3 million units by early September, on top of over 1.2 million copies of the first version, released last year.

Financial data for the sales were not readily available, but the company confirmed plans to release products in foreign markets.

Level-5 president Akihiro Hino will be at the Tokyo Game Show when it starts on Thursday, just outside the Japanese capital.

Alt said he expected YO-Kai Watch would make the jump abroad, where Japanese companies are formidable because of the tight interweaving of their product lines.

"They all work together in what's called the media mix where the video game, the comic book, the animation, the toys all support each other," he said.

"Japanese toy companies have figured out a system for strengthening and cross-promoting their products that is unrivalled anywhere else in the world."