During the launch of Micosoft’s new controller-free motion peripheral, Kinect, on Nov. 20 in Akihabara, Tokyo, a pair of schoolgirl idols stood smiling before a line of about 150 eager gamers — the guy at the head of the line had camped out for two days in a cardboard box with “Xbox 360” painted on it. Lurking among the gamers gathered to buy Kinect were fans of the girl group SKE48, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite idols. The two girls held the shiny black Kinect peripheral and an Xbox 360 and mugged for the assembled press, while Xbox Japan boss Takashi Sensui told the assembled crowd that the Kinect was the “beginning of a new era.” Microsoft seemed to be hoping that tapping the country’s infatuation with schoolgirls and idol groups would translate into yen. So far, it hasn’t.

Microsoft isn’t viewing Kinect — a motion-sensing Xbox 360 add-on that allows players to play sans controller — as simply some peripheral, but are promoting it akin to a new console. Kinect is a big deal, and Microsoft is spending half a billion dollars just on marketing. So far, Kinect is a hit in the United States, where it sold over a million consoles in its first ten days on the market. Japan, with its significantly smaller Xbox 360 install base, of just over a million consoles, is another story.

Even though Windows is the operating system of choice here, Microsoft traditionally has a tough time capturing the imagination of Japanese gamers. During the Xbox 360’s 2005 launch, early reports stated that the Xbox 360 was selling out at retail outlets in Tokyo, but those reports didn’t reflect the rest of the country — where the new consoles sat on shelves, collecting dust. The lack of interest could be because the home video game console market is already crowded with Sony and Nintendo, leaving Microsoft as the odd man out in Japan.

Initially, Japanese gamers said they didn’t like the Xbox 360 because it was aimed at Americans. Never mind that Japanese design firm Hers Design created the original console’s casing and that Microsoft had a handful of Japanese-developed games at the Xbox 360 launch! Microsoft has achieved several successes with the console in Japan, one of the biggest was when role-playing game “Star Ocean: The Last Hope” was released in February 2009. In its first four days, the game sold 166,027 copies. Xbox 360 console sales reached 24,584 units that week. Another role-playing game, “Tales of Vesperia,” sold 170,024 copies during its first week on sale in Japan back in August 2008 and even caused nationwide Xbox 360 shortages. The rest of the time, the Xbox 360 seems to limp along.

Since many talented game developers are based in Japan, it is key for Microsoft to have a presence in the hope of luring Japanese studios to release their games on the Xbox 360. More and more games are “multi-platform,” meaning that they appear on the Sony PS3 and Xbox 360, but the importance of the Japanese market cannot be underestimated — even as many at home and abroad continue to discount its significance.

As part of Kinect’s current campaign in Japan, Microsoft enlisted Jurina Matsui and Rena Matsui, two members of the popular idol group SKE48, a spin-off of the ubiquitous AKB48. In ads for Kinect, both Jurina and Rena are decked out in caramel schoolgirl blazers, and the group’s newest single “1! 2! 3! 4! Yoroshiku!” is used as Kinect’s theme song. The girls appeared in television ads, playing Kinect games and interacting with their virtual avatars.

Both Matsuis appeared at the Kinect launch event at Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara — with its crowd of waiting gamers. Elsewhere, demand for Kinect seemed low, with few reports of lines and generally not much fanfare. Worse yet, some retailers did not appear to be actively promoting Kinect either with poor in-store displays or brochures tucked away on the bottom shelves. Japanese game shops might feel burned on previous Xbox 360 products, hence the retail ambivalence towards Kinect.

Ambivalence or not, Microsoft did still manage to sell over 26,000 Kinect units in its first day on store shelves. Kinect was packaged individually and also bundled with consoles. Xbox 360 sales more than tripled in the week Kinect launched in Japan — up from 2,149 units to 7,083 units. Typically, the Xbox 360 occupies the basement of the console sales charts and sells slightly more than Sony’s old game machine, the PlayStation 2, but nowhere near its rivals. By comparison, Sony sold nearly 100,000 PSPs during the same week, and that’s without the aid of schoolgirl idols.

However, Microsoft’s decision to use them may be easy to understand: In Japan, SKE48’s popularity continues to rise with the group’s Kinect theme song hitting number two on the pop charts. But for Microsoft, success is measured differently. While the Kinect launch might have cost the company more than the rewards it’s reaped so far, it did give the Xbox 360 a good week in Japan. Well, sorta.

Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.

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