Pokemon And Its Capitalistic Development Cultural Studies Essay

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While the global phenomenon of Pokemon - the multi-platform transmedia Japanese gaming craze that took childrens culture in much of the industrialized world by storm around the turn of the millennium - has faded in recent years, its popular impact has led to considerable academic reflection on not only childrens culture and capitalism, but also how cross-cultural translation shape their social and economic manifestations. In this context, this essay will explore Pokemon as being - at one and the same time - a nostalgic escape from, and a training ground in, capitalistic development. As will be argued, in order to understand this apparent inherent paradox in Pokemon we consider its grounding in Japanese cultural traditions, and how these traditions have shaped its interrelationship with capitalism in ways that are subtly distinct from Western conceptions of capitalism and popular culture.

Pokemon and its Context

Pokemon originated in the late 1990s as part of a strategy by the Japanese gaming company, Nintendo, to revive interest in its Game Boy portable gaming platform. Designed by the famous Japanese game designer Tajiri Satoshi, the game was intended to be open and modular to further development across media. In its basic form, it consists of a highly interactive play between players who seek to collect all 150 imaginary creatures or "pocket monsters"; hence the term "Pokemon". The marketing potential of the game lies in the fact that it is impossible to catch or buy all of the monsters (Tobin Introduction 3-5). By the early 2000s the number of pocket monsters had expanded to 300, and over US$15 billion in Pokemon merchandise had been sold around the world (Allison Millennial 4-5).

To understand the paradox at the core of Pokemon it is necessary to first understand the context in which the phenomenon developed. This perspective is essential given that Pokemon is more than simply a passing children's fad. While there have been many fads and marketing crazes in our popular, mass-media culture which quickly vanish without any long-term significance, there are some which serve as avatars for deeper, more significant, cultural processes. The popular phenomenon of "Beatlemania" in the mid-1960s, for example, represented the bud of an emerging baby boomer youth culture that would have global repercussions for many years following. In much the same way, Pokemon can be seen as significant in how it exported a Japanese model of capitalist children's culture around the world.

Contemporary Japanese popular culture has its basis in the bombed ruins of the Japanese empire at the end of the Second World War. As one critic notes:

The liveliest segments of Japan's popular culture are comic books and television animation. They are called "manga" in Japanese, and manga's current form originated in bomb-scorched cities of postwar Japan as entertainment for children. As the children grew up, manga grew with them to become the national entertainment.

(Shiraishi 235)

This origin is important in numerous respect to understanding Pokemon, for it allows us to understand a critical distinction between the Japanese understanding of printed visual narratives (manga) and their Western counterparts (comic books - e.g., Superman, Batman). In the words of one critic: "As social scientists have long pointed out, in Japan there is less separation of childhood practices from adult ones than in Euro-America" (Yano 111). In Japanese culture, not only is it widely accepted that adults will continue to read more mature versions of manga that they enjoyed as children, but conversely Japanese culture lacks many of the common Western prohibitions against exposing children to aspects of the life of adults, such as capitalism and marketing (Yano 111). Thus, while Euro-American culture emphasizes the contrasts between the world of adults and experience with the world of children and innocence, Japanese culture tends to emphasize the continuity between these worlds (Yano 111). In the words of one critic:

Unlike the critical chorus of voices in Euro-America, then, which decry not only consumerism, but in particular, hyperconsuming children, both market organizations and many individuals welcome consumerism as a fact of life, for children as well as adults.

(Yano 112)

This context has important implications for how we understand the paradoxical phenomenon of Pokemon. Consider, as noted above, the origins of contemporary Japanese popular culture in the ruins of Japan in the post-Second World War era. In this period, Japan's economic recovery and growth were considered all-important (Selden 315-318). However, this period of intense capitalist growth and expansion came at considerable social and cultural cost for the Japanese. By the 1970s Japanese youth culture was rebelling against many of the traditional regimens of Japanese society which took the form of the kawaii or "cute" style (Kinsella 220). This was, in many respects, a rebellion against the depersonalized, career-oriented and pressurized world of adulthood within the industrial engine of Japan. As one critic notes:

the cute style was all about acting childish in an effort to partake of some of childhood's legendary simplicity, happiness and emotional warmth. Underpinning cute style are the neo-romantic notions of childhood as an entirely separate, and hence unmaligned, pure sphere of human life.

(Kinsella 240-241)

The significance of this quote lies in how it seems to contradict what, as noted above, many critics have regarded as a key distinguishing factor of Japanese society: its mingling of the worlds of adulthood and children as a continuity rather than an opposition. However, if we consider the "cute" style more closely, we can see how from its earliest days it was heavily defined by capitalism. As one critic notes: "Cute culture was not founded by business. But . . . it did not take companies and market research agencies very long to discover and capitalize on cute style, which had manifested itself in manga" (Kinsella 225).

Thus, in this cultural paradox, we can see the deep cultural roots of Pokemon in the apparent internal contradictions of contemporary Japanese society. At one and the same time, this culture of "cuteness" or kawaisa was a response or reaction to the demands of Japanese industrialization, while also being a product of this economic order in its consumerist orientation. Cute style was thus a way by which Japanese individually, and with the support of Japanese capitalist consumer culture, softened the "edges" of capitalism:

Cute style gives goods a warm, cheer-me-up atmosphere. What capitalist production processes de-personalise, the good cute design re-personalises. Consumption of lots of cute style goods with powerful emotion-inducing properties could ironically disguise and compensate for the very alienation of individuals from other people in contemporary society.

(Kinsella 228)

Pokemon and its Paradoxes

In this context, we can understand how Pokemon can serve as both a training ground for, as well as an escape from, capitalist development at one and the same time. As we have seen, this apparent paradox is not unique to the Pokemon multi-media platform but is, rather, deeply ingrained in contemporary Japanese popular culture.

From this perspective, it is useful to consider the above quote from Kinsella with regard to how cute style functions as a means of compensation for the "alienation" of modern capitalist society. This alienation was, of course, similarly experienced in the West where in response there developed an "urban nostalgia" for "past and more primitive lives. . . and in childhood . . . as a period of innocence" (Kinsella 241). When the legendary Japanese game designer Tajiri Satoshi developed the concept of Pokemon for Nintendo, he was operating within a very similar framework. Tajiri has repeatedly expressed in public his view that the lives of children growing up in postindustrial society are excessively stressful; particularly in Japan, an "academic-record society, [in which] the pressure to study, compete, and perform starts as early as birth" (Allison Millennial 201). One of the widely recognized consequences of this society is that children suffer from "solitarism" by spending a great deal of time alone; at home, with both parents working, cramming for studies (Allison Millennial 201).

It was in response to this situation that Tajiri developed the design for Pokemon. As a child in a rural town, Tajiri has been a passionate collector of insects, and had been fascinated by the diversity and wonders of the natural world. He drew upon this experience in designing the "pocket monsters" of Pokemon which, marketed to urban children, could give them a sort of simulacrum of the experience of collecting and of wonderment at things that were beyond the ordinary, prosaic world of urban living (Allison Millennial 201).

However, Tajiri was also disturbed by the phenomenon of "solitarism"; a social phenomenon that was particularly strong in the gaming world, where isolated play was the norm. Thus, Tajiri designed Pokemon with a high order of interactivity between players:

As Tajiri intended it, the necessity for exchange envelops players in webs of social relationships, given that, by the very rules of the game, one cannot strictly play alone. And, as was hope, exchanges are perpetuated outside the parameters of the game and into currencies of other kinds.

(Allison Millennial 203)

It is in this regard that Pokemon, a game with its roots in a "cute style" reaction to the pressures and competitive life-styles of industrial capitalist society, can be seen as serving as a "training ground" for capitalism. Tajiri envisioned that the players of Pokemon would not only interact in the game, but that it would foster interactivity in real life in that a child might exchange one of his pokemon for a comic book or a piece of food (Allison Millennial 203).

This is an aspect of Pokemon that has stimulated intense criticism in the West. There are, of course, those critics who see Pokemon as simply another means by which a toy company can exploit the child market through cleverer marketing. However, other critics of Pokemon have noted that what makes this game unique among most fads and childhood crazes is that the relationships that it fosters between children are primarily economic and financial ones. As one critic notes:

[The] financial dimension is what school administrators say distinguishes the Pokemon craze from earlier kid frenzies over marbles, yo-yos or even Beanie Babies. "The thing with the Pokemon cards is that kids are really aware of their value," said Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based child psychologist. . . . Recess at his son's school "turned into a little flea market . . . They had their calculators out. It really became a buy-and-sell bazaar."

(Yano 117)

The above quote is representative of the anti-capitalist critique that shaped many non-Japanese responses to Pokemon. These critics, in North America, Europe and the Middle East, argue that childhood must be kept free as much as possible of the capitalist economies of the world of adults. As we have noted, this view of childhood is rooted in a response to industrialization that is notably distinct from the Japanese response; while in both childhood culture developed a nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent world, in Japan this nostalgic world was regarded as continuous with adulthood, while in the West it was radically distinct from the world of adults. [1] 


In conclusion, we have seen how the gaming phenomenon of Pokemon can be seen to function as a training ground for capitalism and a nostalgic escape from capitalism at one and the same time. It has been shown how this apparent paradox is not unique to the Pokemon game but is actually deeply rooted in postwar Japanese popular culture as a response to, and a collaboration with, the market capitalism that defined much of postwar Japanese society. While the manner in which Pokemon can serve as a "training ground" for capitalism has prompted criticism in the West, we have seen how Western culture is not pristine in its treatment of children in this regard either. Moreover, the widespread popularity of the game in North America serves as evidence, not only of how Japanese cultural products may be widely exported outside Japan, but of how Japanese "solutions" to what seem to be Japanese social conditions have clear resonances in other industrialized capitalist economies and their cultures.


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Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Kinsella, Sharon. "Cuties in Japan." In Lise Skov and Brian Moeran, eds. Women, Media and Consumption in Japan. Surrey, UK: Curzon Press, 1995, 220-254.

Selden, Mark. "China, Japan, and the Regional Political Economy

of East Asia, 1945-1995." In Peter Katzenstein and Takashi Shiraishi, eds. Network Power: Japan and Asia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 306-340.

Shiraishi, Saya. "Japan's Soft Power: Doraemon Goes Overseas."

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Power: Japan and Asia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,


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Duke University Press, 2004, 3-11.

Yano, Christine. "Panic Attacks: Anti-Pokemon Voices in Global

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