Attempting to Categorize Vintage Japanese Promos

While WotC promos were explicitly numbered “Black Star Promos”, vintage Japanese promos had no such organization to their releases. Early “old back” promos were identified inconsistently and it is difficult to day to fit them neatly into categories. Bulbapedia, for example, makes no effort to so and just lists them all as “Unnumbered Promotional Cards.”

  • Most cards were distributed without numbers, set logos, or identifying features.
  • Some promos were meant to be direct supplements to sets, which were also unnumbered. These cards feature set logos like Rocket and Neo Genesis.
  • Some families of promo cards were given unique set symbols, like the “GB” Game Boy logo.
  • Many cards saw multiple releases, or releases inconsistent with associated families, making definitively categorizing them complicated.

If you take an interest in collecting these cards and want to fill out a binder, part of the fun (or challenge) is figuring out how to even categorize them. There is no “correct” way to do this, I don’t think. Probably the most objective way to do it is the way Bulbapedia does it and just place every card chronologically regardless of the release method, but I think it’s there’s a lot of potential to find a more personal way to sort and segment these cards. It is possible if you kept a binder of these cards you would categorize them completely different from someone else with all the same cards, which I think is pretty cool.

Here is my attempt at categorization, which is not any kind of final word on the subject. I make changes to how I perceive these cards regularly and just made a bunch of alterations before posting it. My categories are fluid and always evolving: Stagecoach’s JP Promos

Here’s how I’ve given these cards some structure.

1. No Special Sets: Earlier this year I had the existential awakening that Rainbow Islands, the Japanese equivalent to Southern Islands, doesn’t fit the bill of a promo set. Japan had numerous “special sets” during this era that occupied a unique space between promotional cards and traditional card sets. These are sets like Vending, Web, Alto Mare, and - yes - Rainbow Islands. We didn’t have sets like this in English, so Southern Islands fits with our conception of promo cards. But with Japanese cards, it’s important to delineate this type of release from more singular promotional releases. I will probably look in to collecting these at a later date.

2. Hierarchy of Categories: Because certain cards fall in to more than one category, I have a sort of loose hierarchy of categories that determines which features of the card take priority. This hierarchy is Language > Set Number > Set Symbol > Self-Determined Distribution Group > Other.

What this means is that Japanese cards released in other languages, like the Gotta Magazine English Mew and French Pikachu, are separated into their own category. I also collect English promos and most of these releases are Japanese versions of proper English WotC designs. I keep these cards with my English promos, despite them being Japanese cards, because stylistically that’s where I liked to keep them. The only odd-one-out is the French Pikachu, which I’ve included in this section for overall consistency.

Next is the all-powerful and scarcely seen set number. No actual old back promos have set numbers, but there are sets from the Gen II era that do like the T Series and P Series promos. I do collect these ones and their set numbers are all-deciding. These cards are grouped together in sequence no matter how it conflicts with overlapping categories, which does come up.

Next is set symbol. Set symbols appear on a few categories of old back promos. Despite this unifying feature, the distribution of the cards are not always consistent. In these cases, I consider it more meaningful to group them among their symbolic kin and keep these cards together.

After that is my self-determined distribution group. This is where the arbitrary nature of this experiment comes into the foreground. Lots of cards were distributed through specific channels that could conceivably unify how they are categorized. A mainstream, widely accepted version of this is CoroCoro promos. These unnumbered miscellaneous releases are often grouped together because they were all distributed through CoroCoro magazine. One could conceive numerous categories like this, although most of them would be quite small. I have fewer of these than others might.

And finally, if something cannot be categorized in any of the groups above they are lumped into a chronological miscellaneous section.

3. Defying CoroCoro Gospel: Due to my personal hierarchy, I have made some changes to the broadly accepted category of CoroCoro cards. Because of how widely this category of cards is recognized I resisted making any changes to this group at all (even PSA has some reference to it). It is the closest to an “official” category that gives new collectors a scope and a goal to start out with. But since I am collecting all of these promos and not just this category of promos, I had to break some traditions.

I recently decided to add the Super Energy Retrieval promo, which was distributed three times, with the CoroCoro promos. While CoroCoro was its final release, it is the only card I’m aware of that had an official CoroCoro distribution while not being considered part of the CoroCoro category. Because of how cleanly it is adopted into this category, I’ve decided to include it here.

I also removed GB Meowth and the English Gray Star cards, which have been placed in different categories.

4. Consolidating Release Concepts: This is another difficult one that is not set in stone. Lots of Japanese promos were released multiple times with no distinction between the releases. The same Toyota-affiliated Arcanine Promo was distributed through the Best Song CD Collection, as were some promos previously peeled from sheets. These cards are not printed with any variation between them, but their manufacturing process is slightly different due to their different release methods.

There is a very influential and informative thread on our forum from several years ago that asserts you can easily determine which cards were peeled from sheets versus which cards were distributed precut - particular in reference to the Best Song CD collection. I do not dispute the information in this thread, but I cannot replicate it.

My peeled promos do not look like the ones in the photo with the lipped edge and flattened gloss. My peeled promos just look like normal cards. When I started this adventure I was so committed to recognizing the releases as different cards that I would only buy them in their intact packaging so I could know with total certainty where each card came from. But when I inspected these cards under strong light and a magnifying glass, I could not see the pronounced difference I was expecting. I asked for some second opinions, and even had the cards examined with jewelers tools, and they were just as stumped as I was. I do not know what to make about this. I cannot draw a conclusion from it other than I am not able to differentiate between the cards personally. As a result, I have stopped recognizing them as different in my collection. This affects several cards released in the Best Song CD Collection (Super Energy Retrieval, Mew, Mewtwo, and Computer Error) but I have opted to treat them as one card for now.

5. Don’t Over-Categorize: Many cards share distribution methods but are not as numerous as CoroCoro’s more codified family of cards. For example, an obvious category that presents itself for consideration are the Japan ANA releases, which are all cards distributed through an airline in Japan. These cards have some visual identity of depicting Pokémon flying or floating, but they have no set symbol to share. There is an argument here to group them all together as a sub-category. But I have chosen not to because some of the cards are eventually part of the P Series, which would be broken out anyway, which reduces the appeal of consolidating them in the first place.

There are lots of little categories like this. Trainer Mag releases are another one. But the categories don’t feel meaningful or large enough to justify the separation. For that reason, I keep cards like this in the miscellaneous chronology.


Even though this topic is very niche, I thought it would be cool to have an ongoing topic to discuss this taxonomy both to initiate new collectors of these cards and help refine my own opinion with some discussion.

P.S. I don’t include trophy cards in this adventure because I ain’t never gonna get em. Them’s the breaks!


If you want, we can start our own thread/article to make a better version of the Unnumbered Promotional Cards page. I can make it a wiki so everyone can edit and contribute? This thread can serve as a meta discussion about that one if you want


That in and of itself makes for an uphill battle when it comes to properly labeling each and every unnumbered promo card. It’s tough when in order to prove differences in release you have to capture photos of card from differing angles and lighting, but having said that, PSA and other grading companies differentiate them (albeit poorly) so I think this is still a necessity in your list. It makes for a greater challenge, but in my opinion that’s what makes it interesting and you can’t simply lump different variations in together as one card even if you’re unable to display the differences in one photo.

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Do they actually differentiate them? I know PSA generally groups them as one release. I’d be interested to see some evidence to the contrary, however. I have seen a PSA slab with a 2X cert that mentions Super Energy Retrieval being the Fanbook variant, but I question the accuracy of it since that doesn’t appear to be how they slab the card anymore.

For most releases, like Computer Error, I don’t believe PSA differentiates the CD release from the CoroCoro release and just labels them all as CoroCoro regardless.

Some releases, like Hungry Snorlax and Cool Porygon, were always distributed precut so there is no way to differentiate them beyond owning the original packaging. This is interesting, but I question if it constitutes a unique card. :thinking:

It was actually the fact that PSA does not appear to differentiate between the releases that had me doubting my own ability to do so. And sure enough, I could not.

I like this. It’s a very good way to sort all of the unnumbered promo cards. I also prefer the method of putting theme / release type over everything else. It makes it easier to categorize and also great in binder cohesiveness. For the rest, I will just sort them by year of release.

I just have one gripe,

Southern Islands set (both Rainbow and Tropical) was released as a movie commemoration set for the movie ‘Pikachu’s Vacation’. This by definition is a promo set since it was used to promote the movie or was a direct result of it.


So was Alto Mare — is this a promo set?

Pokémon Web was released to promote the Pokémon Center website — is this a promo set?

This is a semantic debate but after much mental anguish I have determined these “special sets” or “commemorative sets” are something outside the scope of what I conceptualize as promo cards.

You are not wrong that by definition they are promoting the Pokémon brand in some way. But it’s kind of like “is a hot dog a sandwich?”

For my purposes I have decided not to consider Rainbow Islands, Alto Mare, Vending, and Web the same category as promo cards. I feel like these sort of commemorative set releases have more in common with each other than anything else and this warrant a separate but adjacent categorization.

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I guess that’s a fair point. Maybe I have a personal bias which prompts me consider Southern Island as promos but it is also like the other sets you mentioned.

I think it’s apt to call them specialized or commemorative sets.


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This reminds me of a previous post on Expansion Sheets vs. Special Expansions vs. Main Expansions vs. Black Star Promos vs. PLAY/PPP Promos.

The OP of that thread is a total nutjob. Hopefully they don’t post here anymore.

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I’ve heard that he steals Pokemon cards from children :eyes:

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Looking forward to working on this after the holiday! Unnumbered Old Back Japanese Promos [skeleton]

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I think in this thread we can work out how to group all the different cards, the rest is just manual grunt work to get all the data into the thread

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