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TIME AsiaAsiaweekAsia NowTIME Asia story

NOVEMBER 22, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 20

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TIME: Why is Pokémon still so popular?
Tajiri: When you're a kid and get your first bike, you want to go somewhere you've never been before. That's like Pokémon. Everybody shares the same experience, but everybody wants to take it someplace else. And you can do that.

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Cover: Pokémania
Their creator thinks of them as inner monsters, but the Pokémon have gone far beyond his mind to sweep Japan--and now the rest of the world
Review: The Man Who Just Didn't Get It
Psychology: Should Children Play with Monsters?
Strategy: A teenager explains the appeal
First Look: A sneak preview of the new characters

Online Exclusive: The Ultimate Game Freak
TIME speaks with Pokémon's creator Satoshi Tajiri

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Pokémon: The First Movie
TIME: Are all the goofy-sounding names important for Pokémon's success?
Tajiri: What's more important is that the monsters are controllable by the players. It could be the monster within yourself, [representing] fear or anger, for example. And they are put in capsules. Plus, everybody can give them their own names. Pikachu is like the name of the species. But each player can name their own Pikachu. So kids can relate to it more. They get more attached to them that way.

TIME: Did you name all those beetles and spiders and bugs?
Tajiri: No. I had a cat, though. I wanted to name the frogs, because I watched them grow, but there were too many.

TIME: Are the Pokémon names related to those insects?
Tajiri: Yeah. Like Nyoromo [Poliwhorl in the U.S.]. It looks like a tadpole. There's little whirls on it because I remembered that when you pick up a tadpole, you can see its intestines because it's transparent.

TIME: Do the names mean anything or are they just gibberish?
Tajiri: They all have meaning. Like Nyarth. It's from a Japanese proverb about a cat with money on his head that doesn't know it's there. It's about understanding the value of money. I don't think they have that concept in the U.S., so the name is different. And Pikachu. 'Pika' is the sound Japanese say an electric spark makes. And 'chu' is the sound a mouse makes. So Pikachu is like an electric mouse.

TIME: None of the monsters is really evil. So how do you know if one of them is with you or against you?
Tajiri: Think of it like this. If a horse runs over you and you die, then the horse is bad. But if you're riding the horse, the horse is your ally. So, if you have a monster in your collection, then it's considered good. But if not, it's still not considered bad, because it could be your friend one day.

TIME: What's the story with Mew? Some kind of a secret character?
Tajiri: Yes, this was done on purpose. Mew was not originally included in the games for people to acquire. You had to get it from interacting with Game Freak or Nintendo. There were 150 characters, and Mew was number 151. You can't ever get a Mew without trading for it. It created a myth about the game, that there was an invisible character out there. Someone gives me Mew, then I give Mew to you, then you pass it on. Introducing a new character like that created a lot of rumors and myths about the game. It kept the interest alive.

TIME: The main human guy is named Satoshi. That's your name. Is he your alter ego?
Tajiri: Basically, he's me when I was a kid.

TIME: His main rival is named Shigeru. That's the first name of Miyamoto, the famous game designer at Nintendo who did Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros. Do you consider him your rival?
Tajiri: No! I really look up to Miyamoto-san. In the TV series, Shigeru is Satoshi's master. In the game, they are rivals. Shigeru is always a little bit ahead of Satoshi.

TIME: Does Satoshi ever catch up with Shigeru?
Tajiri: No! Never!

TIME: Have you caught up with Miyamoto-san?
Tajiri: I think very highly of him. I'd memorize each piece of advice he gave.

TIME: But Pokémon is more popular than anything Miyamoto-san has done. Hasn't the student passed the teacher?
Tajiri: No, because Pokémon was made with Miyamoto-san's advice. Since I was a teenager, playing Donkey Kong, he's always been my role model. He's a mentor for my heart.

TIME: You know what Miyamoto-san said? He said, half-jokingly, that Pokémon wouldn't stay popular forever because he was developing a new version of Mario Bros.
Tajiri: Is that what he said?

TIME: Did the Nintendo people expect Pokémon to be such a big hit?
Tajiri: Not at first. They didn't expect much from the game. Game Boy's popularity was declining. Just when I finished the game and took it to Nintendo, I felt like a baseball player who slides into second base even though you know you're going to be out--but then it turns out you are safe.

TIME: You really thought Nintendo would reject it?
Tajiri: Always. I was told they couldn't really understand the concept of the game.

TIME: A lot of people blame violence in video games for violent things young people do, especially in the U.S. Do you feel guilty about that?
Tajiri: In Japan, violence in games is pretty much self-regulated. In the 1980s, there was a game called Bullfighter where the matador stabbed the bull and red blood squirted out. The day after it was released, they changed the blood to green. There's more violence in games in the U.S., in things like Mortal Kombat, where they rip out hearts and cut off heads. Japanese people wouldn't come up with ideas of blood splattering all over. Japanese focus more on the intricacies of the actions, the motion.

TIME: The TV people in the U.S. were worried about violence in Pokémon. Can you believe that?
Tajiri: I'm very careful about violence in games. I'm not interested in creating violent effects.

TIME: It seems like role-playing games are more popular in Japan than the U.S. Why's that?
Tajiri: Well, one reason is that back when we had arcade games only, they cost 100 yen for one game. I think in the U.S. it was always [much cheaper at] 25 cents. So 20 years ago we thought it was very expensive, but when role-playing games were introduced in Japan, it was revolutionary because once you bought the software, no matter how many times you played, it was free.

TIME: So Japanese game designers aren't making violent games?
Tajiri: No, they make them. But only to sell in the U.S.

TIME: Still, American kids like Pokémon, even without the blood.
Tajiri: I was really careful in making monsters faint rather than die. I think that young people playing games have an abnormal concept about dying. They start to lose and say, "I'm dying." It's not right for kids to think about a concept of death that way. They need to treat death with more respect.

TIME: Well, there's a preacher in the U.S. who says Pikachu is the devil.
Tajiri: I never heard of that! [Laughs] I heard there was a guy who criticized [kid's book character] Harry Potter because of the magic. But I saw the author, and she seemed really nice. The critic seemed like a grouchy mean guy.

TIME: What do you think about that weird incident in Japan in 1997, when 700 kids had seizures while watching Pikachu's blinking lights on the Pokémon TV show?
Tajiri: When I was a kid, I was taught to sit far away from the TV while watching. Then TVs got bigger. That was O.K. in the U.S., because you have big rooms. But in Japan, the rooms are small. So people got in the habit of watching TV close to the screen.

TIME: Is it a good idea for kids to spend so much time playing Pokémon?
Tajiri: I think a lot about kids and what they need and want to make their lives better. You know, the cram school industry started when I was young. There was so little time to play. During school breaks, we'd run to the arcade to play games. Right now, there isn't much time for kids to relax. So I thought of games that could help kids fill in those five- or 10-minute gaps.

Images © 1995, 1999 Nintendo/Creatures Inc./Game Freak Inc.; moving images by Adam Connors

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