Repackaging Japanese Culture: The Digitalization of Folktales in the Pokémon Franchise


Japanese Folklore

How to Cite

Sumilang-Engracia, E. A. “Repackaging Japanese Culture: The Digitalization of Folktales in the Pokémon Franchise”. Mutual Images Journal, no. 5, Dec. 2018, pp. 5-30, doi:10.32926/2018.5.sum.repac.


Pokémon is arguably one of the most enduring brands in Japanese pop culture. As of March 2014 the Pokémon video game franchise alone has sold more than 260 million units worldwide (Lien, 2014). The Pokémon series has been the most well known game that the Nintendo Game Boy series has ever produced and marketed internationally. This study looks at Pokémon as a cultural product. Information contained in the Pokédex, an electronic encyclopedia of Pokémon found in the game points to the use of Japanese folklore as inspiration for some of the Pokémon released. There is an intricate give and take in the process of telling and retelling of folktales that is argued to be present even in its currently newer forms. This study explores the digitalization of folklore by looking at the incorporation of Japanese folktales into the Pokémon video game.

Looking at how folkloric motifs were integrated in the creation of these pocket monsters inhabiting the world of Pokémon points to the importance of the Japanese folklore in the character designs. These folklore motifs infused in the game characters, and the world itself gives the franchise a Japanese cultural flavor which, as pointed out by other authors like Allison, make the experience more enjoyable (2003, p. 384). As such, this study looks at how the Pokémon franchise fuses socio-cultural elements in the creation Pokémon’s individual and unique pocket monsters. In effect, these new game creatures called Pokémon become new conduits by which old Japanese folktales are revisited, revised, and ultimately renewed. More importantly, it becomes one important avenue in the creation and proliferation of a Japanese cultural identity that is marketed abroad.

It is argued that Pokémon is indeed a new medium where Japanese folklore has been appropriated and digitalized. According to Iwabuchi, influence of products of different cultures on everyday life cannot be culturally neutral. Instead, they inevitably carry cultural imprints called “cultural odor.” In terms of cultural odor, this makes Pokémon Japanese in fragrance. The creation of these newly formed folklore is a dynamic interaction between Japanese culture, the technology they are coursed through and gameplay as a form of performance by the consumers. The whole franchise now serves as a digital archive for folkloric beings that influenced directly or indirectly their creation. This resulted in enabling participative interaction between folklore and the individual. For international consumers, they also potentially serve as entryway into picking up an interest and learning more about Japanese culture. More than the ukiyo-e paintings and monster catalogs that proliferated during the Edo Period, Pokémon has fleshed out these folklore motifs and has put them at the front and center through their games, allowing for players to interact with and bond with them in an ever expanding virtual space called the Pokémon world.
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