Pokémania Caught ‘Em All: The Youth Imagination, Adult Uncertainty, and Everybody’s Wallets

The Pokémania that gripped the United States at the end of the twentieth century can best be described as a series of contrasts.  This duality encompassed clueless parents and their captivated children, the American businesses who reaped the profits and the public who clamored for its consumption, and the product’s inherent sense of both capitalism and communalism.  Pokémon’s success in the United States can be attributed to a combination of these factors.  American corporations saw the unprecedented success of the franchise in Japan, recognized the potential for endless revenue streams, and marketed it towards children after repackaging it as a culturally neutered product. Children latched onto the games, cards, and cartoons because they could exercise control over the way they played and could communicate within their own peer groups. The majority of parents saw it as a benign yet totally incomprehensible foreign good when they were not transfixed on the sensational stories of violence reported by fear mongering media outlets.

When removed from the personal bias and the sales figures, the precise effect of Pokémania on children’s psyches and parents’ wallets is ultimately a matter of dispute.  However, the proliferation of Pokémon in the United States and its influence on the American acceptance and reception of Japan’s “cool” brand of popular culture cannot be ignored.  Kubo Masakazu of Shōgakukan Inc., the company that oversaw the production of the Pokémon comic books, cartoon, and movies, describes it best:

There never has been a game that has spread so broadly around the world and gone beyond race, language, values, and religion.  In the sense of its international commonness and the spectacular speed as well as breadth of its worldwide circulation, we could say that the phenomenon of Pokémon is unprecedented in human history.

 

Pokémon-painted airplanes by All Nippon Airways took off in 1998

Pokémon-painted airplanes by All Nippon Airways took off in 1998

Despite the astronomical revenues the Pokémon games, cartoons, and merchandising had already accumulated in Japan by the time of its American release in 1998, the franchise was considered a gamble.  American companies were concerned that the slow-paced role-playing game would be unable to make a dent in the action-oriented video game market, that the characters were “cute” rather than “cool,” that the story lacked a clear-cut theme of good versus evil, and that its lead character was a pudgy, yellow mouse that spoke in unintelligible babble as opposed to a more relatable human lead.  In order to market Pokémon to American audiences, business executives tailored the property to fit American standards of children’s media.  It was assumed, for instance, that the main human character, Ash Ketchum, needed to be the central focus of the marketing campaign.

It was also deemed necessary, according to Gail Tilden, the Pokémon project coordinator at Nintendo of America, to make the franchise “culturally neutral.”  This idea of making an element of popular culture “placeless” is a manifestation of Koichi Iwabuchi’s concept of mukokuseki, a Japanese term that literally means, “something or someone lacking any nationality.”  Among other things, Japanese text was removed from the cartoon, and rice balls were airbrushed to look like doughnuts in the localization effort in order to make the product more accessible to American audiences.  Norman Grossfeld of 4Kids Entertainment, the man in charge of designing the movies and cartoons for U.S. release, explains that he did not wish for the presence of such foreign forms of culture as rice balls to distract children from the scene because it might “take kids out of the experience…”

The captivated youth spent their parents' money to buy more of the American Pokémon machine.

The captivated youth spent their parents' money to buy more of the American Pokémon machine.

The efforts of the American distributors paid off, and children embraced the burgeoning Pokémon machine; however, the corporate planning and strategizing did not account for how it would be embraced.  According to Joseph Jay Tobin, Pokémon gained popularity because “it provided a sense of identity to a wide variety of children.” After conducting focus testing with children, Warner Brothers concluded that Ash’s role was secondary rather than primary.  Children did not want to be Ash; they wanted to become Pokémon trainers themselves and go on their own Pokémon journeys.

This shift from a passive audience to a more active one stems from the way children interacted with the Pokémon universe.  The Pokémon games shed the inclination of video games of the time that demanded greater concentration and increasing amounts of solitary absorption in favor of comparatively simplistic software that fostered communication, interactions, and exchanges between children.  This communalism necessary to success in the game, coupled with the unprecedented levels of interactivity and control children as young as four years of age could exercise over a “world of their own,” accounts for its staggering appeal in the United States.  Furthermore, not only were children aware of Pokémon’s Japanese roots, but they were enamored with them, as well.   The value placed in the Japanese originals of Pokémon cards was drastically higher than that of the American cards, which arguably began the trend of cultural stock being placed in signs of Japanese origin.  The American youth broke with the distributors’ expectations largely because they were placed in control of the action.

The American distributors aimed their marketing towards children directly, bypassing adults altogether.

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The title of this 1999 TIME article was "Beware of the Pokémania"

The title of this 1999 TIME article was "Beware of the Pokémania"

The American distributors were right to assume that parents would face difficulty in understanding their children’s newfound obsession.  When promoting the movies, Warner Brothers did not bother to cater to befuddled parents because it was understood that the Pokémon mythology could not be explained in just one sentence.  Despite their confusion over what Pokémon was exactly, and despite the deluge of sensational stories of children being incited to violence that were featured by such outlets as TIME Magazine, fundamentalist church groups, and CNN, most parents found the Pokémon phenomenon to be cute, harmless, and filled with good morals.  Most people, for example, discounted the claims of the child psychiatrist, John Lochridge, who told CNN that he feared that Pokémon’s creators “had deliberately set out to create a fantasy world so compelling that children would quickly become obsessed…brainwashed.”

The Radical Opinions of a Few

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According to Roland Kelts, “Pokémon delivered Japan to the U.S. market.”  American business scrambled for profits, enthralled children sought more and more of the products, and clueless parents shed the dollars.  Ultimately, though, Pokémon’s most far-reaching effect on the United States was that it caught everybody’s attention.

Has any other cultural import, Japanese or otherwise, had such a sweeping impact on children’s media in the United States?  Could Pokémon have originated in another country, or is there something distinctly “Japanese” about the product?

Sources

Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Berkeley: University of California, 2006.

Iwabuchi, Kōichi. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.

Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.


Entry contributed by Sara Caudill

 

Comments

  1. abmckechnie says:

    great job! I found the article very interesting, especially those who believed Pokemon to be an evil brainwashing tool. As I was thinking about your questions, I realized that most of the popular children’s toys that came to mind were in some way influenced by the Japanese. Even those that appeared to be inspired from other foreign cultures. I never realized that Mario was created by a Japanese man, Shigeru Miyamoto. Additionally, I figured that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were for sure either an American or Italian idea, which is true to an extent. But the Turtles are trained by a rat sensei in the Japanese art of Ninjutsu. It seems that escaping Japanese influence on kid’s favorite mediums is harder than one might think!

    After doing some quick research I’m not sure another cultural import has had such a great impact on children’s interests. This Japanese phenomenon has opened the U.S. to a great cultural Japanese invasion.

    You mention that “American corporations recognized the potential for endless revenue streams and marketed it towards children”, but it seems to me that no one was sure how the American public would respond, and the great success Pokemon has enjoyed was not predicted. If Pokemon had not been tailored to what the large corporations believed would appeal to American kids, and game and cards were introduced in their original format, do you think it would have been such a success?

  2. aslabriny says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I didn’t know that the American distributors originally thought that Ash would be the main focus of Pokemon. Very cool.

    I think that your post could be improved if you elaborated a little on the evolution of Pokemon in the US market, from when it first came to the US to now. How have the demand, marketing strategies, etc. changed over time?