TOKYO -- Mayumi Nishiguchi loved her pet chicken Hanako like a child and took it everywhere. So when Hanako died Thursday, the 35-year-old shopkeeper held a funeral, putting its body on a pedestal, praying over it and lighting a cigarette in lieu of Japan's traditional incense-burning.
"After the funeral," she said, "I pressed the reset button." And there, on a thumbnail-sized video screen, a new chick was hatched.
Miss Nishiguchi and millions of other Japanese have gone cuckoo over a little electronic game called Tamagotchi, in which the goal is to properly care for and feed a virtual chicken.
Since introducing the game on a key chain last November, the Bandai Co., the people who had something to do with the Power Rangers craze that swept America three years ago, has sold 5 million Tamagotchis. But it probably could have sold a bunch more. Indeed, Tamagotchi, which roughly translates as "cute little egg," has become a virtual game in another sense as well: it is virtually always sold out at virtually every store.
So desperate are people to get one that they camp overnight outside shops that are to receive a shipment or pay hundreds of dollars on the black market for a product with a list price here of just under $16.
Now Bandai hopes to put a virtual chicken in every pocket in America. Tamagotchi went on sale Thursday for $15 to $18 in the United States and Canada and showed signs of becoming the next Japanese gadget to sweep the continent. By Friday morning F.A.O. Schwarz in Manhattan sold out of its first shipment of 10,000. "Based on the demand we are seeing, virtual pets look like the toy of the year," Michael Goldstein, chief executive of Toys "R" Us, said in an interview, adding that he expected to sell "many millions" of Tamagotchis and similar toys this year. "We will take every piece we can get," he said.
Whether the American boom will be sustaining, however, is still open to question. Many of the early buyers in New York were Japanese tourists, no doubt hoping to obtain in the United States what they could not get at home. Moreover, there will be strong competition in the American toy market this year from Nintendo and Sony Playstation video games, as well as toys based on movies like Star Wars, Batman and Robin, and Jurassic Park 2.
Predicting whether a fad will transplant itself across the Pacific Ocean is difficult. Japanese video games like Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog have been big in both countries. But Sailor Moon, a Japanese cartoon heroine that was wildly popular here, failed to take off in the United States, to the disappointment of Bandai, which had the license to make the toys. On the other hand, Bandai's Power Ranger toys sparked a boom in the United States far beyond what happened in Japan.
Giving life to a cyber-chick begins with the press of one of three buttons. Then the player must feed it, play with it, discipline it, give it an injection when it gets sick, and even clean up its digital droppings. The chick sleeps at night, but during the day it beeps whenever it wants attention.
Depending on how one cares for the pet, it grows up into one of several different creatures, including a crotchety old man. It usually lives for a week to 10 days, but sometimes longer.
Keiko Okumura, a Bandai spokeswoman, said the company was caught flat-footed by the unexpected demand and had raced to expand its production capacity in China to 3 million units a month. But many people suspect that Bandai is deliberately keeping supply tight to feed the frenzy.
In fact, Bandai has received one immediate financial boost from Tamagotchi. When it announced in March that it would give a Tamagotchi as a gift to each owner of at least 1,000 shares of its stock the price shot up by 60 yen the next day on four times the normal trading volume.
Tobu Department Store stopped telling customers when shipments would arrive because people would camp out on the street and then race through the aisles to the toy department when the doors opened.
Even so, when Tobu received 1,000 units on Tuesday, they sold out in 45 minutes. "Some people come to the store every morning to check," explained Yasushi Kanai, a spokesman.
The idea of virtual pets is not new. Many hand-held electronic organizers, popular among Japanese school girls for the last few years, feature on-screen dogs or cats that must be fed. A popular video game here called "Princess Maker" requires the player to raise a virtual daughter from age 10 to 18.
But Tamagotchi encapsulates the idea into a tiny device that appeals to Japan's love of cuteness.
Most of the buyers are teen-age girls or women in their 20's. Some commentators say the toy is popular because it is difficult to have a real pet in crowded Japan. Others say Tamagotchi satisfies the nurturing instinct of Japanese women, who more and more are marrying later and having fewer children.
Still others note that the penchant for conformity in this group-oriented society prompts everyone to want what is in fashion, spawning huge fads.
Whatever the reason, many people grow attached to their "pets."
"My wife said 'Good Morning' to the Tamagotchi but she didn't say it to me," griped Norio Kamijo, research director at the Dentsu Institute for Human Studies, a think tank belonging to Japan's largest advertising agency.
Some people in Japan bring their cyber-pets to work. "When it beeps you have to rush into the bathroom to take care of it," said a 22-year-old office worker. In Tokorozawa, a Tokyo suburb, a driver crashed into another car when she tried to administer to her beeping creature.
There are dozens of World Wide Web pages devoted to Tamagotchi, including a digital graveyard in which people leave farewell messages to their departed pets.
In many families the wife, who tends to be a homemaker, looks after the Tamagotchi when her children are at school. In America, where more women work, the key-chain chicks might become latchkey chicks, raising the possibility that without constant attention virtual chicks will turn out to be bad eggs.
As with the video games, there is fear that Tamagotchi could cut kids off from reality and teach them the wrong lessons. If things are not going well with the cyber-chick, one can simply push the reset button and start all over, said Kamijo of Dentsu. With real animals or children, he said, one cannot do that.
But others dispute that. "Those who say we feel no pain at resetting the game have not raised a Tamagotchi on their own," a high school student named Tsuyoshi wrote in an on-line chat room. He said it is more cruel to exploit a real animal to satisfy one's desire for companionship.
Bandai, which specializes in toys based on cartoon characters, badly needs this hit. The Power Rangers fad has faded, as has that of Sailor Moon. And Bandai suffered a dismal failure with Pippin, an Web-browsing device developed with Apple Computer.
The Tokyo-based company is expecting to report a net loss of 9 billion yen, or more than $70 million, for the fiscal year that ended March 31. Sales are expected to be 200 billion yen, or $1.6 billion, down 15 percent from two years ago. Bandai is scheduled to be merged later this year with Sega Enterprises, the Tokyo-based video game manufacturer that has also seen better days.
In the toy business, the No.1 seller is Mattel's Barbie doll, which typically takes in $1 billion in sales a year. Bandai expects to sell 20 million Tamagotchis in Japan alone in the current fiscal year, which ends next March 31, accounting for 20 billion yen, or $160 million in revenue, which is hardly chicken feed. It expects another 10 billion yen in sales from related merchandise such as Tamagotchi cases, T-shirts and stuffed dolls. It won't make a forecast for international sales.
Reinier Dobbelmann, an analyst with SBC Warburg Securities in Tokyo, estimates that Tamagotchi will add about $16 million to the $64 million in operating profit he had been projecting for the current fiscal year. does this include foreign sales?
Profits could be low, however, because numerous knockoffs have already appeared, particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Bandai is fighting them in court in Japan. In the United States, Tiger Electronics Inc. launched a line of Giga Pets on the same day as Tamagotchi sales began. Priced at Toys "R" Us at $9.99, Giga Pets officer six different pets ranging from "Compu Kitty" to "Baby T-Rex."
How long the fad can continue depends on sequels that are being planned, including one in which a male and female creature breed a new chick.
Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this article. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.