Sunday 20 May 2018

Gotta Catch 'em all: Hikikomori Support through Pokemon

The franchise and monsters known as Pokemon (Pocket Monsters) boast a worldwide following, and few characters are more universally recognisable than Pikachu. Of course, Pikachu or any of the characters in Pokemon lack any strongly "Japanese" characteristics: Koichi Iwabuchi has called this kind of popular culture "odourless culture" (mushū bunka =無臭文化) and argues that the lack of an obvious Japanese look, taste, or smell is precisely the reason why it has such universal appeal. Certainly, most Japanese cultural products undergo some sort of adaptation to local markets to make them more accessible: the American version of Pokemon, for example, saw a slew of changes to names, signs, food, jokes, music, and pacing.

In the recently opened Pokemon Center in Nihonbashi - the nation's 25th and biggest Pokemon facility - there are thousands of Japanese looking Pikachu for sale. The picture shows lines of Pikachu wearing Happi (法被) - a traditional straight-sleeved coat worn at festivals - and Hakama (袴), sometimes described as "Japanese-style trousers" (see previous post here). The 1300㎡ center also has a Pokemon cafe which requires prior reservations, though the food is not particularly Japanese: curry and pancakes in the shape of Pikachu! Pikachu is in fact about the only character who has kept his original Japanese name, with pika being an onomatopoeic term for a flashing light and chū just a generally cute sound (used to describe both squeaks and kisses!).
The release of the AR Pokemon Go game for smart-phones (sumaho =スマホ) in 2016 saw huge interest in Japan, as elsewhere, but also generated a lot of negative publicity. There were a spate of traffic and other accidents in which players were so absorbed in the game they walked into the road or bumped into other pedestrians; in March 2017, one driver was imprisoned for three years for killing a boy while playing the game. Posters appeared at stations, imploring passengers to stop using their smart-phones while walking, known as aruki-sumaho (歩きスマホ). However, amid all the media brouhaha (sōdō =騒動) a number of positive uses for the app emerged, including as a fitness tool for the middle-aged, a way to attract tourists to disaster hit areas, and even for suicide prevention. One of the most interesting proposals though has come from the Japanese government who have suggested that Pokemon Go can help hikikomori - social recluses who are estimated to number anywhere from half a million to as many as 1.2% of the population - deal with isolation and withdrawal from society, a proposal which has solid scientific backing. Gotta catch 'em all, or, as they say in Japanese, pokemon getto daze (ポケモンゲットだぜ)!