Pokémon Go to Jail

The Pokémon universe has been around in earnest since 1996, with the release of a pair of video games made for Nintendo’s handheld video game system, the Game Boy. Since then, Pokémon has taken the world by storm many times over. The Pokémon franchise has erupted to include dozens of video games, multiple television series and animated movies, a live-action film, a multi-billion dollar licensing empire, and a collectible trading card game. Those trading cards can be extraordinarily valuable; in 2022 — and this is an extreme case — one very rare card sold for $900,000. That’s an outlier, of course, but as any Pokémon card collector can tell you, there are many attainable Pokémon cards sell for a few hundred dollars regularly. 

Few of them are worth going to jail over, though. But for one Japanese man, that’s exactly where he ended up.

In 2020, the Pokémon company released “Pokémon the Movie: Secrets of the Jungle,” the 23rd anime movie in the franchise’s storied history. As part of the launch of the movie, the company entered into a lot of licensing deals, including one with the Akagi Nyugyo company, a maker of popular desserts. The deal centered around one of Akagi Nyugyo’s best-selling products, pineapple-flavored Garigari-kun popsicles, which typically sell for the equivalent of about $3 per box. Akagi Nyoguo ran a contest, as the Japanese Times explains

The company ran a competition between June and July [of 2020] in which people could send in rare lucky sticks from its popular popsicle brand Garigarikun in exchange for Pokemon game cards created for the event.

The limited sticks were engraved with the words “You win a Gari-Pokémon card,” which could only be seen after consuming the ice cream.

The giveaway was extremely popular because the Gari-Pokémon card was a limited edition one, attainable only by discovering and redeeming one of these winning popsicle sticks. And your odds of winning the card weren’t great. According to Screen Rant, “It is estimated that one person must open a minimum of 41 boxes before getting their hands on one winning popsicle. Additionally, each box contains six separate popsicles, meaning the chances for an individual to win one stick is 1/246.” As people started discovering sticks and getting their cards (a mythical Zarude, seen here, if you’re curious and know your Pokémon), a backchannel to purchase the cards emerged. Fans could buy the card on e-commerce sites like eBay and Mercari for about $300. 

That’s a good amount of money for a used popsicle stick, and if you could get a lot of winning popsicle sticks, well, that could be a huge amount of money. And that gave Takashi Ono, then 43 years old, an idea: make his own winning sticks. Getting blank popsicle sticks is easy — all you need to do is buy a few boxes of the frozen pineapple treats, eat the popsicles (that step is optional, actually), and dry them off. You can find what the winning engraving looks like like pretty easily; all you need to do is replicate the design, mail in the winning stick, and sell the card you get back. Repeat a few times and you’ll be on easy street — or, at least, that’s what Ono figured. 

But his plan failed. Why? Because he got a bit greedy. Sora News 24 explains:

Akagi Nyugyo received a winning stick in the mail which had been sent from Akita Prefecture. Then it got another, and then another. Before long, the company had received 25 winning sticks, mailed one at a time, all of which they believed were from the same person. A single Pokémon/popsicle fan being that lucky seemed suspicious, so Akagi Nyugyo (which is headquartered in Saitama Prefecture) asked the Saitama Prefectural Police for advice, and in the course of the investigation they were able to determine that the sticks were fakes.

The police determined that Ono was the likely culprit and arrested him for attempted fraud; whether he was convicted has gone unreported in the English-speaking press (as far as I can tell). And to add insult to his injury, he may have gotten away with the scam — and made 50% more money — had he searched the online marketplaces better. Scroll down to the bonus fact to learn why! 

Bonus fact: It turns out, Ono didn’t have to send the sticks to Akagi Nyuguo to cash in on the scam — he could have just sold the winning sticks, and made more money than he would have by selling the cards. As Sora News 24 reported, some of the discoverers of winning sticks were selling them on Mercari, with “some successful listings selling for as much as 50,000 yen (US$472)” That’s more than the $300 that the card itself was worth, which was puzzling — but Hypebeast offers an explanation: “Many are guessing that the high demand for the sticks is due to the peace of mind for the buyer where when you send in the stick to Agaki you are sent a fresh, unopened card, whereas if you buy a card from the seller, you could be given a damaged or fake version.” 

Double bonus!: The intrepid Mr. Ono isn’t the first person to counterfeit popsicle sticks. In the early to mid-2010s, a local popsicle company stamped some of their sticks with a prize indicator; if you had a winning stick, you could turn it in to a retailer for a free popsicle. In 2015, a trio of Turkish men were arrested for creating hundreds of counterfeit winners, as the Hurriyet Daily News reports: “The suspects are accused of collectively exchanging the fake popsicle sticks in some markets and selling ice cream to other markets at half-price. It was revealed that the popsicle stick ring had been producing and distributing fake sticks on the market for three years.”

From the Archives: Disaster off a Stick: The world’s biggest popsicle makes the world’s biggest popsicle-related mess.