I think we should start 2021 with a weird curiosity, don’t you?
I’ve been reading the excellent book Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination by Anne Allison (2006), which has two chapters on Pokémon (and one on tamagotchi, arguably Pokémon’s immediate spiritual predecessor). In discussing Pokémon’s place within modern Japanese history and culture, Allison cites a very early Pokémon strategy guide, published in Japanese in 1996 (and never in English, as far as I know) and titled simply ポケットモンスター図鑑 (poketto monsutā zukan, or “Pocket Monster Illustrated Guide”). This book has all the things you’d normally expect of a strategy guide, like game maps and encounter tables, but also has some developer interviews and a short section on the history of the Pokémon world. I haven’t laid hands on a copy of this book myself, nor would I be confident enough in my Japanese to translate it myself, but Allison’s summary certainly includes some points that Pokémon fans today might find… eyebrow-raising.
First of all, the guide claims that Pokémon have existed on Earth for around 2 million years (bear in mind here that the generation I games never put a firm date on “fossil” Pokémon like Kabuto, saying only that they died out in “prehistoric times,” which could be as recently as four or five thousand years ago). This is, after all, the beginning of Pokémon’s history, when the creators still clearly imagined that Pokémon lived alongside real animals, something that no longer seems to be the case. By this reckoning, the evolutionary history of the Pokémon world diverged from that of the real world relatively recently, with all the animals we know developing undisturbed up until that point. More importantly (in my opinion), 2 million years – give or take – is also the rough length of time humans (that is, genus Homo) have existed. I think the intended implication here is that the history of Pokémon is inextricable from that of humans – they came into the world alongside us, and their destiny is forever tied to our own.
Second, we are told that the first person to study Pokémon was an 18th century French aristocrat, Count Tajirin.
Just let that one sit for a minute.
So, obviously, “Tajirin” is a reference to Satoshi Tajiri (just like Ash in the TV show, who is “Satoshi” in Japanese); there’s nothing particularly remarkable about that. Nor should it be alarming to find a reference to a place called “France”; the games as well mention “Indian” elephants and state that Mew was discovered in Guyana. Just like the real animals, those real places have disappeared over time (and, in the case of France, been replaced by Kalos), but this is 1996; Pokémon Red and Green are set in a fictionalised version of southeastern Japan that is, more or less, a location on Earth as we know it. What’s interesting is that the writers of this book chose to put the origins of scientific Pokémon studies outside Japan – and specifically in Europe, during the Enlightenment, with privileged noble scholars. Count Tajirin described 30 species of Pokémon and the field of study he founded quickly became a pan-European endeavour. By the end of the 18th century, the cause was taken up in Japan by one Professor Nitsunomori (Professor “Two-Forests” – perhaps the first “Professor Tree”), who discovered that Pokémon evolve – which… apparently no-one had noticed before. His legacy was that Japan became a senshinkoku – an “advanced country” – in the field of Pokémon studies, which Allison points out is something of a loaded word, since becoming a senshinkoku was the explicit aim of the modernisation projects of the Meiji era (late 19th to early 20th centuries). A total of 80 known Pokémon species in Nitsunomori’s time has expanded to 150 in the modern era, thanks in large part to the efforts of Professor Oak, who has achieved international renown for his studies of Pokémon ecology.
And… well, on the one hand, who gives a $#!t? Obviously none of this is “canon” now, if it ever was in the first place; this sketch of the history of Pokémon science clearly doesn’t fit with what 24 years of subsequent media has built up. That doesn’t really matter to me, though; I don’t think I’m particularly concerned with being right or wrong about obscure matters of “deep lore” like… y’know… whether France exists. I’m interested in the meaning of stories, and this history gives Pokémon a pretty clear meaning, as Allison explains: Pokémon studies is one of the fields that Japan adopted from Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and subsequently came to excel in, ultimately contributing to the country’s modern status as an economic and scientific world leader. This is a story about Japan’s history and destiny, wrapped up in a package that kids can understand and care about. The fact that the creators place the origins of Pokémon studies in Europe in the 18th century (the time of Linnaeus in Sweden and Buffon in France) and make Professor Oak and his work part of that lineage honestly kind of feels pretty vindicating for the way Elena and I framed Pokémon training and the Pokédex quest as a project of 18th century biology in our talk for Trinity History Con a couple of months ago (which, if you haven’t watched it, seriously please do: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1V-cfcsi5Q). This isn’t “the answer” to anything important – it’s just one of several angles on where the Pokémon creators’ heads were at, after the completion of their first big project in this setting. And it’s one that I think is interesting, because it speaks to real aspirations for the creators’ society and real cultural achievements that they’re proud of.