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Nowhere in the world is popular culture more influential than in Japan. From Hello Kitty and Pokémon to anime (animation) and manga (comics), the culture of youth dominates Japanese media. In this video series, Harvard University professors Theodore Bestor and Helen Hardacre explain what Japanese popular culture reveals about the society’s history, religions, and national consciousness.

Theodore Bestor :: If you just look at Japanese popular cultural products, like for example the whole series of things that have come out in the last few years about Pokémon, it’s easy to forget that these fit into Japanese culture in particular ways.

The thing that strikes me, for example, about Pokémon — my son is a Pokémon fanatic, so I know quite a bit about it from, at least, a parent’s view — is the number of things about Japanese social life it actually reinforces. Pokémon, if you play it as a video game, is an interactive game. It works best when two people are cooperating and playing against one another and can exchange characters back and forth. It’s not necessarily an individual activity, it’s a group activity. So it reinforces the sense of producing interesting things by cooperating with other people.

Another aspect that’s often overlooked is the extent to which Japanese popular culture really contributes to and grows out of the fact that Japan is an incredibly literate society. In order to play Pokémon, one has to be able to read Japanese characters at a fairly advanced level. So, in fact, it stimulates, I think, young children to want to learn to read. It certainly doesn’t present itself as a reading program for kids, but in order to understand all of the ways in which the characters operate, their strengths, their weaknesses and so forth, you have to be able to read a fairly sophisticated vocabulary. And I think it stimulates all kinds of questions in a kid’s mind about the symbolism of characters, the background, the historical allusions and so forth. So it’s really, in that sense — I'm sure many teachers would probably find this an odd statement — but in that sense it’s a very rich educational environment.

Another example of the ways in which Pokémon characters, the actual figures on the cards, reflect certain kinds of Japanese values are that, though this is cast as a battle of people fighting with their Pokémon, and their Pokémon clashing, there are no casualties. Pokémon don’t die, or at least they don’t die or get hurt through the battle that they’re engaged in. The only way that a Pokémon is in mortal danger is if the human fails to take care of it. So it has this sort of nurturing sub-text to it that, if one is going to be a responsible Pokémon player, one has to take care of the characters that the game depends on. So, though it can be seen as a violent game, I don’t think that it actually is.

But there are other ways in which Pokémon characters reflect other, even more subtle themes in Japanese culture. If, for example, you look at the ways in which the characters are configured, and their attributes, there are certain ways in which they reflect traditional East Asian cosmological beliefs about elements — fire, water, metal, earth, wood — each interacting with others. The categories of Pokémon characters are more than five, but they interact with one another in a way that, to me anyway, is reminiscent of this sense of a cosmological system in which symbols relate to one another in very prescribed ways, and that you can kind of predict that this substance, this essence, will triumph over that one. So, I think that in that sense, a kid who plays with Pokémon is learning something about a sort of a traditional East Asian world view of elemental essences that act upon one another.