Pokemon Break Ground For Japan

By Akira Ishikawa
Political Theorist

Ephemeral as it may be, the Pokemon craze is a vivid testimony to the undercurrent of the new millennium: globalism. The cuddly cartoon creatures have not only spawned a billion-dollar market worldwide but also exemplified how to go international.

Pokemon are the latest—and most successful in recent memory—"export" from Japan, where comics, with a huge following from all walks of life, are staples of popular culture. Rarely have Japanese comics and animated TV shows crossed the cultural barrier across the Pacific, however. What has catapulted Pokemon to such popularity in the United States?

No people has been more obsessed with internationalization than the Japanese. Since opening its doors to the outside world in the mid-nineteenth century, Japan has evolved into a Western-style nation state, first as an autocratic imperialist and then as a U.S.-modeled industrial democracy, chronicling struggle after struggle for international acceptance. Kokusaika, as the Japanese call internationalization, has been a buzz word that evokes the sense of progressivism, as opposed to tradition-bound nationalism. The country’s path to modernity is punctuated by frequent clashes between the two modus operandis, between future-embracing metamorphosis with a touch of self-denial and the reactionary defense of independence and uniqueness.

Japan’s modernization is marked by wild swings between the two irreconcilable ends. Kokusaika is often a synonym for westernization. Things Western, from technology to culture to political, economic and social institutions, were treasured and traded the place with vernacular, traditional values. This shift, when pushed too soon and too far, backfired and set the stage for a comeback of the old guards. Japan, as soon as it won international recognition as a global power in the wake of World War One, set out to chart its own course as the self-appointed champion of non-Western (i.e., Asian) cause.

The costly and humiliating defeat in World War Two did away with the nationalist paradigm, leaving kokusaika as the only legitimate national goal. Much of the post-1945 era marked uninterrupted, linear progression in which a humbled Japan was re-assimilated and reformed into a U.S.-like capitalist democracy. In this process, however, something peculiar happened. Kokusaika was pushed to the point where the Japanese voraciously "localized" Western culture. Now the West—the Japanese version of the West, to be precise—is so deeply embedded in contemporary Japanese life that the Japanese think and act, by and large, like Westerners.

Troubling is the fact that they are so captivated to the internationalization paradigm that they are on course toward turning themselves into authentic Westerners. This is what many Japanese mean by kokusaika. The irony here is that they are already as "western" as the Westerners—which is not in the least self-evident to the Japanese. They don’t see themselves as part of globalizing Western civilization. That’s why they often act as if out of place on the global stage, looking for an assuring pat on the shoulder from the U.S. and Europe.

Against this backdrop, Pokemon are a fresh surprise. They have debunked the myth of kokusaika. Created primarily for domestic consumption, Pokemon have found enthusiastic fans in the U.S. and elsewhere. The message is loud and clear: The Japanese don’t have to go out of their way and metamorphose themselves to be accepted by the rest of the world. The quality of Japanese-made products doesn’t raise eyebrows, but Japanese culture, except for stereotypes like Zen, kabuki, and the like, has been considered non-exportable. Pokemon have broken ground, showing that Japanese software can be just as competitive. The bottom line is that Japan and the U.S. have a lot more in common than they realize.

That is the case especially in the Age of the Internet. The Pokemon magic rests on interactivity and multimedia, the two pillars of the Internet. The pocket-size game machine Game Boy is a magic wand that instantly turns kids into Pokemon trainers. What is more, Pokemon have gone truly multimedia, meaning that they are omnipresent. A typical Pokemon aficionado wakes up to the early-morning TV show, eats breakfast staring at Pikachu at the back of a serial box, and trade Pokemon cards at lunch time. In after-school hours, too, kids are enthralled by more Pokemon in the form of video games and Pokemon Web sites.

The story is much the same in Japan. Here is an important lesson. Apparently, the Pokemon craze, which originated in Japan, spread to the U.S. with the same intensity. The key to this success is what computer experts call localization—customizing software for a particular country. Pokemon, especially their TV program, got localized at two levels. One is cosmetic. Satoshi, the protagonist who is on a journey to become the best Pokemon trainer in the world, became Ash. Most other names were also Anglicized. In addition, the monsters were given clever English names like Squirtle for the water-squirting, turtle-like pocket monster.

Secondly, the TV show was modified to appeal to public sensibilities in the U.S. For instance, violence, religion, racism and sexism—which are generally more tolerated in Japanese society—are carefully edited out. This kind of cultural sensitivity or keen awareness of social mores is absolutely critical when courting an audience. Cultural isolationists in Japan would rail at such localization as a sell-out, but this criticism is essentially anachronistic evoking only romantic sentiment for the past. In the case of Japan, as suggested above, there is no "old, pure Japan" that can be restored. Similarly, disturbed by the Pokemon phenomenon, U.S. isolationists upholding "uniquely American values" would criticize the localization as a marketing ploy, reducing the craze to manipulation by marketing wizards. However, values that are revered in Japan but pushed to the back seat in the U.S.—such as teamwork and perseverance—come through the localization process. In this regard, nothing has been more success than Pokemon in helping American kids learn something about Japanese society, even without knowing it.

That’s what internationalization is all about. Pokemon have opened the gate to the outside, and the Japanese must take their success to heart. Localization ultimately leads to the question about an understanding of different cultures. Japan’s failure to understand the U.S. led to a disaster more than half a century ago. In the post-Cold War era, which coincides with the birth of the Internet, the Japanese must understand Americans in their terms, not in terms of the Japanese version of America. Pokemon have paved the way in this direction.