July 9th will officially mark the 3rd year anniversary of Pokémon GO. It’s been a bumpy road from that original date, but I can honestly say that the product we are enjoying now is a wonderful one that has done some amazing things in this world, whether it really knows that or not.
What I am going to talk about is the Power of Community.
I have lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 10 years now, and for the entirety of that time, I’ve been working for a Christian NPO trying its best to convert Japanese people into Christians. We used many weird tactics, from pretending to be a “non-religious” college circle to providing services to young adults with sprinkled messages of Christ and Biblical principles.
This has been a deep, painful struggle for me. I feel like I’ve been living a lie for so many years because of stability. My doubt in my company, my faith, and in my work grew more and more over the years, until finally, I couldn’t handle it anymore. From the political stubbornness, to the inability to grow and change, to the severe lack of understanding of my wife’s mental illness, my company proved more and more to me that Christians are unwavering in their ways. Call it stubborn. Call it pride. For me, it was pain.
Although Pokémon GO came out nearly three years ago, I didn’t really get into it until January 2018. Until then, I played casually only for the first few months and didn’t touch it again for an entire year. The year of 2017.
2017 was a weird year for me. My supervisor and I were really butting heads over religious and spiritual differences, my son was struggling with both English and Japanese languages, my wife began showing symptoms of depression and high anxiety, and I experienced my third burnout since beginning my work in Tokyo. Needless to say, it wasn’t the best of years, and I had very little energy to do much of anything else.
But that all changed in January 2018. One of my Japanese co-workers after a conference pulled out his phone to do a raid. I asked him, “You’re still playing that game? Why?” He told me, “It has gotten so much better! So many new Pokémon, Raid Battles, and you can even get Legendaries in these Raids! But you need people to do it with. It’s impossible to do these Legendary Raids alone.”
I still had the app on my phone, so I figured, “Why not?”, and reopened Pokémon GO for the first time in over a year.
I remember the moment I got pulled back in like it was yesterday. My wife and I were in Chitose Karasuyama on a date, and I saw that one of those Legendary Raids was about to start. I asked my wife, “Do you mind if I do this real quick?”, and she smiled, nodded, and said, “Go for it!”
I’m not the biggest Pokémon fanatic, but when I saw Rayquaza pop out of the egg, I got so excited! It looked like such an awesome Pokémon, so I was determined to get it. After defeating it, I only received 6 balls. Ouch. Ball after ball, Rayquaza kept popping out. The pressure built. It was my last ball, and I got a Great throw... not the best. Oh, no... one... two... THREE?! I caught it! On the last ball!
And that was the adrenaline rush I needed to get back into Pokémon GO, but it’s not what cemented me. That was to follow.
For the next few months, I played by myself around my home area in Hachioji City. It was a lot of fun doing raids, gym battling, and catching all of these new Pokémon I had missed out on during the previous year, but it was gym battling in the evenings after work that I really enjoyed. One night in May 2018, I was gym battling at these two gyms at a shrine near my home. It is at this point that my team color may become important (*cough* Instinct *cough*). While I was battling, a young Japanese man slowly started walking towards me. Once the gym was defeated and I entered my Pokémon, he asked, “You are yellow team?” “Yes, I am!” I responded. I finally met a fellow Team Instinct player in Japan.
And this was how I met one of my best friends in Japan, Shu. Finally, I have made a real friend outside of my work that I can just enjoy and hang out with, no obligations attached. It was so freeing! We often played Pokémon GO together, enjoying events like Community Day and Zapdos Day, for example, but we were also invested in each other’s lives. My kids love Shu, and when my son began to get into Pokémon himself, he would join me and Shu on our outings. Watching Shu and my son interact brought so much joy to my heart, and I was just so thankful for our natural and immediate connection.
But when the Friend/Trading update came out at the end of June 2018, Shu and I began to connect with more people in our area, and not just Instinct members. Over time, our group grew and grew and grew, to the point where we had to create a LINE group just to keep up with each other (At the time of this writing, our group is nearing 30 members.).
Last December, Shu disappeared, and we were all very worried. Everyone in the group messaged him and messaged him, but it wasn’t until mid-January that he finally responded. He was depressed, had returned to his hometown, and was helping his mother take care of his father, who now has cancer. The love of the Pokémon GO Community had lifted his spirit and helped him through a very difficult time. When he returned just last week, the joy inside my son’s eyes when I told him Shu was back was glorious. The embrace was so caring, so loving, and so powerful that I finally saw what a loving community truly looks like.
For years, my organization pretended to be this. A Christian organization trying to be a loving community by manipulating and tricking people into a spiritual experience. But here I am, enlightened by a naturally built community in Hachioji City, Japan. A group with people ranging from 7-years-old to 72-years-old. We don’t just play Pokémon GO together. We love each other. We care for each other. We support one another.
My son has received lots of free language support from this group.
Two of our graduates have gotten lots of advice from company workers as they job hunted and are starting their work.
I have offered diet and workout plans to numerous members (I used to work for Gold’s Gym and the YMCA previously.).
The kids play together, the adults play together. We all play together.
It’s a wonderful sight to see.
The moment that made me smile from ear to ear the strongest, though, was when one of our members had to move away. Everyone came together to create a memorable farewell that left this member in tears. She was showered with Eevee gifts, we all did one final raid together, and I experienced a group hug for the first time ever since being in Japan.
For the last decade of my life, I have been teaching the Biblical principle of “ekklesia”, a Greek word that means “community”. But ironically, I didn’t need religion to teach me this Biblical concept. I didn’t need Biblical experts or pastors or other religious leaders to give me lectures on the subject. And I definitely didn’t need a church to understand what real community actually is.
Pokémon GO taught me the meaning of ekklesia. The friends I play Pokémon GO with taught me about community. And we didn’t need a building to meet at regularly to house the concept of “community”. We are able to freely go where we want, whenever we want, to our hearts content.
And we’ll smile and catch Pokémon along the way.
No strings attached.
Just the power of love, and the power of community.