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The Hidden Culture behind Pokémon Designs

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Naming Pokémon is a serious business, and I don’t just mean thinking up clever and hilarious nicknames for your team (I still consider naming my Onix ‘Boulderdash’ the height of my writing career). Instead I’m talking about the ingenious inspirations behind some of the creatures in Nintendo’s continually expanding pantheon of pocket monsters. Some Pokémon are so rooted in Japanese traditions or puns that it’s impressive that the translators and localisers managed to transform them for a western audience at all.

That’s right; understanding the Japanese origins of Pokémon counts as cultural education, so let’s get started. And yes, I know Ekans is snake backwards. Wait, what about Arbok?

Twists in the names

We’re starting small, but the rules state that I have to begin with the internationally famous mascot. As you would expect Pikachu’s name is adorable, but did you know it’s formed from the word for sparkle (pikapika) and the sound of a mouse squeaking (chuchu)? There are plenty of onomatopoeia jokes like this; Voltorb’s Japanese name is Biriridama, which comes from biribiri (to experience an electric shock) and dama (ball), but I find the names which come straight from English funnier. The popular Mimikyu is of course based on ‘mimic you’, but Krabby and Drowsee are literally just Crab and Sleep (kurabu and suri-pu).

Pokémon with the spirit of Yokai

The spooky monsters of Japanese myth have provided Game Freak with plenty of inspiration in their design process. The Lotad evolution line all sport a lily pad on their head reminiscent of the fabled Kappa, which would appear from the water to cause mischief. The unsettlingly carnivorous looking mouth on the back of Mawhile’s head is just like that of the Futakuchi-onna yōkai, a woman cursed with an extra mouth in the back her head. The many tailed foxes Ninetales and Vulpix are based on the mythical kitsune foxes, messenger of the god Inari and known for their crafty nature.

Whiscash remains my personal favourite though, since this fish Pokémon is essentially just a big blue catfish. The legendary ability of catfish to cause powerful earthquakes is what grants this whiskered Pokémon its unusual water and ground typing, as well as a spot in this article.

Farfetch’d

Despite how interesting these Pokémon origins are, I don’t think any can beat Farfetch’d. The leek wielding bird gets its name from the Japanese proverb ‘鴨(かも)が葱(ねぎ)を背負(しょ)って来(く)る’, meaning ‘a duck arrives shouldering a leek’. It can be used to describe a situation where someone gullible makes it incredibly easy to take advantage of them, and once you learn that there’s a popular dish involving leek and duck in Japan, this bizarre phrase starts to make some sense.

In Japanese Farfetch’d is simply ‘kamonegi’, meaning duck leek, but surely any one tasked with explaining all this in a single name would have wanted to give up immediately. Farfetch’d is an acceptable but desperate attempt, and part of me wishes this oven ready Pokémon was still just named ‘Duckleek’ in the English edition.

There’s so much Japanese culture buried in Pokémon! What secrets about the popular game series do you know?

Images taken from: Pokemon UK