Pokémon: Globalization of Fandom and Franchise

Pokémon was released in Japan in February of 1996 as two games for the Nintendo Game Boy: Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green. In recent times, schoolchildren were pressured to excel in academics, and spent much of their time studying in solitude. Tajiri sought to create a world where children could explore their surroundings like he had as a child, “to give kids a means of relieving the stresses of growing up in a postindustrial society” [1]. The games were designed to encourage interaction among friends through trading and sharing information.

Illustration of a Bug Catcher from the first generation of Pokémon games. In many of the core series games, Bug Catchers are among the first kinds of Pokémon trainers the player encounters, a reference to Tajiri Satoshi’s hobby as a child.

They became hugely popular in Japan, spinning off into other forms of media, such as a trading card game, comics, and a cartoon. Though it was only intended for a Japanese audience, Nintendo made the decision to export the franchise to the United States. At the time, no Japanese media had really made inroads into the American mainstream. Due to “The cultural hegemony of the English-speaking West combined with the Japanese belief in the uniqueness and inaccessibility of their culture” [2], Nintendo did not believe that the franchise would be successful if it had obvious markers of being Japanese. Though the American localization team would later deny that it attempted to hide Pokémon’s Japanese origins, they removed references to Japanese culture so that American children could accept Pokémon as being familiar. In a notorious example from the show, the English dub has the characters Misty and Brock offer protagonist Ash Ketchum a “jelly-filled doughnut” [3], while it is visually clear that they are eating not doughnuts, but Japanese onigiri, or rice balls. Following commercial success in the United States, American companies were given the rights to disseminate and localize the franchise elsewhere outside of Asia.

Over time, the content of the Pokémon franchise itself has come to include references to cultures outside of Japanese culture, reflecting its now global audience. While the regions that the first four generations take place in are based off of various parts of Japan, the fifth-generation region is based off of New York City with references to the United States as a whole, and the sixth-generation region is inspired by France. In these two generations, characters with dark skin were introduced, many of whom were intended to be read as Black. This was a departure from previous generations, when all of the human characters were light-skinned and ambiguously Japanese or white. The sixth generation’s games also allow for the player to choose their character’s complexion, as a way to better represent the diversity of its audience.

The first four regions of the core series games, Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, and Sinnoh, are based on Japan’s geography. They feature many Pokémon inspired by Japanese folklore, such as Ninetales, Meowth, Farfetch’d, Dunsparce, Mawile, Jirachi, and Froslass, as well as characters like the Kimono Girls.

In the fifth generation, Unova is based on New York City. It features Pokémon like Braviary, based on the American bald eagle and Cofagrigus, based on an Egyptian sarcophagus.

In the sixth generation, Kalos is based on France. In it, Lumiose City and the Prism Tower are inspired by Paris and the Eiffel Tower.

Most recently, the seventh generation of Pokémon began in November of 2016, shortly after the widespread hype surrounding the Pokémon Go mobile app that was released that July. Its region, Alola, is modeled after Hawai’i. While Hawai’i does have a significant diasporic Japanese population, it is the first location for a region to be based on that is not a part of Japan or predominantly white. The franchise introduces many characters that are meant to represent Hawai’i’s native Pacific Islander population. While most characters still remain light-skinned, the Pokémon franchise has progressed considerably far in its representations of different ethnicities, especially when considering that the first-generation Pokémon Jynx has been embroiled in a controversy regarding its appearance as an anti-Black caricature. What this signifies is that as Pokémon has become a cultural phenomenon around the globe, the fictional Pokémon world has opened up to becoming more diverse and reflective of its global fanbase.

In the seventh gveneration, Alola is based on Hawai’i.

[1] Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Berkeley: U of California, 2006. Print.

[2] Tobin, Joseph. “Pikachu’s Global Adventure.” (2001): n. pag. Web.

[3] Primeape Goes BananasPokémon. N.p., 9 Oct. 1998. Web.