Over the last decade, people’s behavior during their daily train ride has completely changed. In the past, Japanese were known to be avid readers of paperbacks (bunko) and manga magazines, and would do so even on Tokyo’s notoriously crowded trains. Now, however, it is rare to spot someone on the train who is not staring into their cellphone.

A large amount of them are playing social games. And companies like Gree and Mobage, which produce social games, are earning more than traditional video-games titans such as Nintendo and Sony. But these huge sales are actually supported by just a small percentage of players.

Parents being shocked to find their children spending ridiculous amounts of money on cellphone games is old news — and certainly such cases are often reported to the National Consumer Affairs Center, with more than 20 percent of their annual 5,000 inquires related to teenager-related cellphone spending. However, the other 80 percent of the complaints are by adults, particularly those in their 30s, who plead that they have felt cheated into spending large amounts on virtual game items. It is definitely adults, rather than kids, who have propelled the social-game market to the point where it has surpassed the home videogame market for first time in 2012.

In general, with social games, 80-90 percent of users never purchase anything and simply play within the bounds of what is offered for free. While research shows that even most of the users who do pay spend a only a couple of thousand yen per month. But if that is the case, how do game providers earn such extraordinary sales? It comes down to the small percent who do spend the big bucks, and boy do they spend.

One of the games most notorious for heavy spender by users is IdolM@ster, by Namco Bandai Games. The premise of the simulation game is that you manage and produce “idol” units, much like virtual versions of girl-group AKB48. The game has had an enthusiastic fanbase in arcades and on home consoles since 2005, and the social-game version for cellphone was released in 2011.

More than 100 virtual girls are available to choose from in the game, each with very detailed characteristics and each voiced by professional voice-actresses. Some songs by popular virtual girls have even ranked in Japan’s Oricon music chart — and I’m talking about the real charts, not the ones in the games.

In the game, you collect “cards,” which represent the girls and their various attributes, in order to form better a unit to beat other players. As usual in a social game, you can gain an upper hand by paying money. In IdolM@ster, drawing a ¥300 card may give you a stronger, rarer card. The cards are also collectable in sets, similar to baseball cards, so players also want to complete sets of the same theme, same girl, and so on.

Since the launch of IdolM@ster as a social game, it has been common for players to share their achievements on blogs and Twitter, mentioning what cards they have and how much they spent for them. Some people have confessed that they draw a few hundred cards in one day, which can amount to between ¥50,000 and ¥100,000.

The jargon by such users likens these paying players to soldiers, with such titles as kakin-hei (paying soldier), jyu-kakin-hei (heavy paying soldier) and hai-kakin-hei (decommissioned paying solder), being used as if they are honorable titles. Their exhibitionist behavior includes uploading scans of credit-card bills and showing their purchases live on the video-streaming service Niconico Live.

In June, there was even a book published titled “Mobamasu Haijin” (“Mobage IdolM@aster Addict”), which interviewed seven addicts who told how they spent a couple of million yen each to get the girl cards. They are not necessarily rich, but rather seem to have little else to spend their money on.

But what motivates these guys to spend so much? With 3.5 million users playing “IdolM@aster,” the game itself must be interesting enough without spending anything, so I guess that those heavy spenders enjoy “metagames,” which make their names known outside the game.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867) there was as an old proverb that said, “Edokko wa yoigoshi no zeni wa motanai” (“An Edoite will not keep his earnings overnight”). Using all the money you earned each day was thought to represent the coolest lifestyle. That does not mean that people of the time were rich, but spending all their money on consumables such as kabuki, ukiyo-e, and pretending to be okay was a part of a type coolness known as “iki.”

Although I may be stretching things a bit, competing to disclose how crazily they spent lots of money on those cards and praising each others’ dissipation, reminds me of Edo’s iki culture. Both then and now, the economy was stable, but low, for a long time.

The success of social games like IdolM@ster means many more similar games with virtual anime girl cards are popping up. Some companies, such as Klab, which produces “Love Live!,” and Kadokawa who make “Kantai Collection,” are betting that heavy spenders who use their products will, for them, be game-changers — and their share prices reflect as much.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English/Spanish blog on Japanese web scene. His Twitter account @akky is followed by 120,000 users.

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