Japanese Folklore, Myths, and Pokemon

By Chou Toshio. Art by Chou Toshio.
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Welcome to the fourth installation of Japanese language / culture. This time, we will look at some of the many Pokemon based on Japanese legends and folklore. Incidentally, I really wish we could skip this installation, as four is bad luck in Chinese, and via character reading, in Japanese as well. The reason is that shi, 四, which means 4, sounds the same as shi, 死, which means death. Let's just get through this and go to a more fortuitous number! Prepare for lots of superstition and folklore in today's edition.

Hihidaruma (Darmanitan)

Let's start with the most flamboyant of BW's folklore-based Pokemon, Hihidaruma. Hihi, 狒狒, means baboon, which is an easy reference, considering the apelike appearance of the Pokemon. For the sake of exploring folklore, Daruma, 達磨, is the part we are more interested in.

In common culture, Daruma is a reference to the Daruma dolls, a popular and common toy / charm based on the Buddhist priest Bodhidharma, who is cited as the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism that has strongly rooted itself in the culture of China, Japan, and East Asian countries at large. With this, one should keep in mind that Daruma are connected to Buddhism (worshipped at temples), not Shintoism (practiced at shrines). With their bright red round bodies and huge eyes, one will easily see the likeness of these dolls in Darmanitan's design.

The Daruma dolls are symbols of perseverance and good fortune, connected strongly with goal making and overcoming adversity. The dolls are made with a weighted base so that they will "stand up" no matter how they are tilted, symbolizing rising to the challenges of life. It makes one wonder what possessed Game Freak to give Darmanitan such pathetic defensive stats, but it can be said that the ridiculous power of its Sheer Force ちからづく(another reference to driving perseverance maybe!) STAB Flare Blitz off 140 base Attack certainly has a way of plowing through any resistance it meets.

Another interesting trait of the Daruma dolls is that they are often made without pupils (much like Darmanitan's "Zen" mode, another reference to the Zen's founding priest). It is possible that Zen mode is a reference to Bodhidharma achieving enlightenment. It is a tradition to paint in only one eye of the doll when one makes a goal and asks for good fortune in pursuing said goal, promising to paint in the other eye upon the goal's completion.

Whether a goal is completed or not, each Daruma doll's power is only intended to last one year (much like that of other charms sold at temples). There is an annual festival called Daruma Kuyo, だるま供養, which usually follows the new year. While not unique to daruma, and also performed with temple omamori, お守り (protective charms), the ritual is held to "retire" the daruma (or charms), by returning them to the temple. This is also done in a show of gratitude for the protection / fortune that the charm has brought to its holder. At the temple, thousands of retired Daruma are collected, and collectively burned—sending them to the heavens. Darmanitan's Fire-type was very appropriate.

Uindi (Arcanine)

Let's talk about Arcanine to stay in the vein of Fire-types with their origins in Guardian idols originating from India and China. Arcanine is based on guardian lion-dog statues, originating in China as 石獅 Shíshī, which has a surprisingly similar pronunciation to shishi 獅子, or lion, in Japanese. While the Japanese versions have evolved independently for many centuries, the Japanese Komainu 狛犬, and Okinowan shisa シーサー, still share a very close similarity with their Chinese cousins. Shisa is a simplification of Shishi-san (Mr. Lion).

Not just lions, but throughout China, Korea, and Japan, one can find bizarre and fantasized depictions of animals like lions, tigers, elephants, and giraffes, with all manner of fangs, horns, and even scales. Try taking a gander at the dragon-like creature that is the mascot of Kirin Beer (Kirin means giraffe in Japanese). The reason lies in the ancient relations between China and its western neighbors in India and the Middle East. The traders of the silk road brought all manner of legends and tales of their lands, along with goods like tiger skins and elephant tusks—but there was no photography, and no means to accurately describe animals that the Chinese (and subsequently, the Japanese) could never see. These animals were also deeply connected to Buddhism and Middle Eastern folklore. The result is that these animals became increasingly fantastic in Eastern depiction. The lion, with its reverence as a symbol of fearsome power, was especially romanticized, and the lion-dogs and their wild manes became increasingly popular.

Always found in pairs, lion-dog statues guard the gateways to temples, shrines, and castles (as well as homes of some individuals!) throughout Japan, and Eastern Asia at large. Their styles and forms differ, but in all places they are used to ward off evil as guardian beasts. In Japan, it is tradition for one to have its mouth open, and the other closed, representing their vigilant attention to those both entering and exiting through the gate they guard.

Hasuburero (Lombre)

The first time I read Lombre's Japanese name, I couldn't help but do a face-palm. Hasu means lotus, while burero obviously comes from the Mexican hat, Sombrero.

On to the folklore, amongst Pokemon, Lombre probably has the greatest resemblance to the Kappa, a Japanese water demon / sprite (though Golduck and Ludicolo are also both supposed to be similar to Kappa). The Kappa are slim and slimy river dwellers with blue or green skin, about the size and appearance of a child, with a turtle-like beak and a lily pad dish on their heads that holds water as they move across land. By all accounts, this pretty much describes Lombre perfectly.

Kappa are notorious trouble makers, from juvenile pranks to malevolent acts of violence, and are generally considered dangerous water demons. Even in odd parts of Japan today, one can find Kappa warning signs near some ponds and other bodies of water. Apparently, they will also eat people and rape women. The best way to deal with a Kappa is by bowing to it—the Kappa are well known to be compulsively polite, and cannot help but return the bow. This will cause the water in its lily pad to spill, rendering it dry and helpless (and letting you run to safety). Pretty ridiculous, but then Lombre (and its evolution) are too.

My personal favorite Kappa is Kappazushi (Kappa Sushi), a chain restaurant that serves cheap sushi served via conveyer belt. It's great stuff, and at only 100 yen a plate (approximately $1.25 in US currency), how can you go wrong? There are even little mechanical shinkansen (bullet trains) that will bring out sushi you order directly from the kitchen on a touch screen menu. Conveyer belt sushi restaurants are called "kaitenzushi" (spinning sushi) in Japanese. There's even a sushi named for the Kappa. It's called Kappa-Maki (Kappa Roll), and is a simple roll sushi with a cucumber in the middle. Kappa love cucumbers.

Kyuukon (Ninetales)

Believe it!

I am sorry, I just couldn't stop myself… ttebayo.

No, Ninetales makes no reference to a popular anime about ninjas, but it does share the same reference to foxes in Japanese folklore. Kyuu is nine, "kon" is the Japanese onomatopoeia for a fox's bark. Do foxes even bark? That's some real Japanese mythology there.

As for the foxes in Japanese mythology, they are actually a type of Youkai, or demon spirit. There are many different Youkai. Some are really famous like the evil Oni that fought Momotaro, or the iconic Kappa. Others are extremely obscure, like the Nurarihyon, an old man sea spirit, that supposedly inspired Jellicent's design, or the Futakuchi-onna (two mouthed woman) that supposedly inspired Mawile's. The Kitsune (fox) spirits that inspired Ninetales's design are among the more famous. Kitsune spirits are known for being very intelligent, imbued with powerful magic abilities, and living to become ancient and wise. Sometimes they are portrayed as tricksters, or vengeful spirits—much like Ninetales's Pokedex entries speaking of its long-held grudges. Other times, they are holy creatures, deities that go between humans and gods, playing a role in Shintoism, and often used as a guardian spirit by shrines. Usually, they have the power to take on a human form.

Whether they be demons or deities, it is established that they live to become very ancient. The older they become, the more powerful they grow, along with the number of tails. The oldest and most powerful Kitsune have nine tails. Vulpix's evolution to Ninetales is obviously a reference to this. Ninetales is obviously the god / deity variety of kitsune, since it seems like the thing Team Magma would now try to get in order to destroy the world with Drought.


Of course, the natural conclusion is that Game Freak makes all mythical Pokemon Fire-types. In all seriousness though, it can be quite interesting to do some digging and find out what lies behind the Pokemon. Bulbapedia has lots of great references, so I encourage you to try some digging yourself sometime—uncovering the myths and mystery behind Pokemon!

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