Japan's `Virtual Chick' Spreads Its Wings

Spin-offs and upgrades of Bandai's hot-selling toy are in the works

Maybe it's emblematic of the famed Japanese "cult of cuteness." Or maybe it's just an amusing diversion. At any rate, there's something surreal about the current craze over Tamagotch ("cute little egg"), a digital pet chick that demands constant care and feeding. Since Japanese toymaker Bandai Co. hatched the gadget in November, it has sold more than 1 million of the virtual chicks at $16 apiece to consumers who have mobbed Japanese stores. Some of them are paying as much as $400 on the black market. There are even reports of Tamagotch abductions in broad daylight by teenage girls.

Behind all the hysteria, which Bandai hopes will soon spread to the U.S., is a device that simulates the growth of a tiny chicken in a small liquid-crystal display hanging from a two-inch-long, egg-shaped plastic key chain. Click it on, and the image of a chick appears. During its average 10-day life span--the chick grows the equivalent of a year every day--it will peep up a storm when it's lonely, when it's hungry, or when it has left little digital droppings in its wake. The chick's owner must then press the appropriate buttons to feed or clean the little thing.

"BABY-SITTING." If they are well cared for, the critters will eventually evolve into thriving and lovable characters. "It makes me feel like I'm a mother raising a child," says Miyuki Yago, 24. "I leave it with my mother for baby-sitting when I can't carry it with me." But you have one sick chick on your hands if a feeding is missed. If you're really negligent, a ghostly Tamagotch appears.

By July, Bandai hopes that sales in Japan will reach 6 million units and that an English-language version will be in stores in the U.S. With product upgrades, spin-offs, and accessories planned for next year, it hopes to parlay the boom into $80 million in additional sales every year.

Bandai already has its factory in China on a 24-hour production schedule and is now sending the gizmos to Japanese toy stores by air freight to speed delivery. Even so, Bandai's home page on the Internet has been deluged by frustrated customers, while its Tokyo headquarters receives 5,000 telephone calls a day. Retailers have even resorted to lotteries to allocate their scarce stock. "I've called many shops about the next shipment, but I never got an answer," sighs Yuko Imai, a 17-year-old high school student.

Japanese television chat shows are full of musings about what's behind the phenomenon. Bandai marketing manager Ikuo Shibata thinks the mania arose because "it's difficult to have pets because of housing problems" in Japan. Yuji Fukuda, research director at the Dentsu Institute for Human Studies, attributes it to so many Japanese women opting to remain single and childless. Bandai's offspring give women a virtual way to "experience motherly love," he figures.

Maybe so, but the boom has given rise to some not-so-maternal feelings, too. There are now competitions among Tamagotch owners to see who can kill off their digital progeny the fastest. This isn't what Bandai executives had in mind. Yet with all the money rolling in, they probably don't give a cluck.

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