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Blast Tokyo Bureau

It started innocently enough.

Last May, when my brother-in-law heard that my wife and I were going to visit my parents in Ohio, he asked us to pick up a couple of those Tamagotchi virtual reality pets. They've been sold out here in Japan since last year, and he explained that his girlfriend would be heartily impressed with one as a gift. The other one, he admitted, was for himself.

I had heard of them, of course -- those golf-ball sized plastic eggs on a key chain from Japanese toy maker Bandai, the company responsible in part for introducing the world to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers a few years ago.

After scouring two malls in Dayton, we finally found Tamagotchi (pronounced tom-ah-goat-chee) at K-B Toys. At $18, they weren't cheap. But wife Noriko was quick to tell me that they were selling for hundreds of dollars on Japan's black market. The clerk told us we were lucky because a shipment had just arrived, but that purchases were limited to two units per person. We each bought two, just in case. As it turns out, our timing was good. Many U.S. retailers are reporting Tamagotchi to be sold out within a couple hours of delivery.

I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, so I fired one up. The word "Tamagotchi" is Japanese and literally translates as "egg watch," which is basically what they are -- eggs that tell time. But, of course, that is not all.

Bandai's golden egg was first marketed as a tool to teach Japanese girls the difficulties of child rearing. Nowadays, however, I often see staid "salarymen" playing with the critters on the train. Since November, Bandai has sold more than 7 million of the toys here, and their success has spawned a flock of Tamagotchi knockoffs and even counterfeit versions.

After turning your Tamagotchi on, a pulsating egg appears on the tiny liquid-crystal display. Five minutes later, a chick hatches and the game begins. Using one of three buttons, you must feed, play with, discipline and even clean up after your video-game pet. Frequent checks of the "health meter" are vital to ensuring that it remains happy and well fed. Injections are required when Tamagotchi is sick, and the light must be turned out when it goes to sleep. Neglect results in "death," and how the creature grows up depends on your parenting skills.

The export version differs slightly from its Japanese cousin. Both, according to Bandai, have "traveled millions of miles from its home planet to learn what life is like on Earth." But in Japan, the creatures eat rice; their overseas relatives prefer bread. And Japanese Tamagotchi die, while their counterparts "return to their home planet."

All Tamagotchi can be reset to ensure generations of fun and each chick you raise will grow up to have one of six personalities--some are cute, well-mannered creatures; others are ugly, lazy and spoiled. An "Earth" day is equivalent to roughly one year for Tamagotchi, and the average life span is two weeks. Luckily, the sound can be turned off, because when the pets want something they emit ill-tempered beeps.

I named mine Hugh. And according to a chart on Bandai's Tamagotchi home page, as an adult he was healthy, but liked to stay up late, wake up late and was selfish.

I coddled Hugh. I took him with me everywhere and spoiled him with frequent snacks between meals. I was always quick to clean up his cyber-droppings and never turned down his incessant calls for attention. That rascal sure loved to play the "direction" game (I'd have to guess which way he'd turn--left or right--and if I guessed correctly, he would get all excited and beep like mad).

But to be honest, raising Hugh was starting to interfere with my job. It wasn't a problem at first -- he was born, after all, while I was on vacation. Back at my office in Tokyo, however, I found myself sneaking peeks at him under the desk and rushing into the hallway or rest room to feed and play with him.

Several people in Singapore have reportedly been fired for neglecting their duties to care for their Tamagotchi. Apparently, these workers would rather sacrifice their jobs than let their pets die. Perfectly understandable.

For much the same reason, a growing number of schools around the world have banned virtual pets inside the classroom. And as ridiculous as it may sound, Hong Kong actually has a 24-hour telephone hot line to console virtually bereaved owners. There are even virtual graveyards for Tamagotchi on the Internet.

Hugh lived to be 18, which is "excellent" according to the instruction booklet. My wife was playing with him at the time of his demise, repeatedly chanting, "Shinde Hugh," or "Die, Hugh." My obsession was apparently taking its toll on her. Just before he died, a skull appeared over Hugh's head. It was over a few minutes later--he turned into an angel and was heading skyward, back to his mysterious planet.

Where will it all end? I suppose, like all fads, this too shall pass. I certainly can't see myself going through that ordeal again. My Tamagotchi will be on its way to London next month, where they are also immensely popular and equally hard to find. A co-worker's grandmother has been begging him for one, and he finally convinced me to give him mine to take with him when he visits her in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, I'm going into the kitchen for some breakfast. Don't even mention eggs.