Yokai Watch and the Muting of Japanese Culture

Yokai Watch and the Muting of Japanese Culture

Is there something Nintendo of America isn't telling us about Level-5's hit monster-hoarding RPG?

Yesterday, Nintendo of America announced that Yokai Watch, Level-5's 3DS Pokemon-style mega-hit, will finally be making its way to the States. In terms of deals, this is a pretty big one: Since its 2013 debut, Yokai Watch has basically gone on to make all the money, so naturally, many of us non-Japanese folks want to see what all the fuss is about.

Though it clearly fashions itself after Pokemon—complete with its own official manga, anime and merchandise (lots of merchandise)—Yokai Watch may end up being a harder sell for Americans than Nintendo's other RPG behemoth. That foreign word in the title isn't going to mean a thing to 99.9% of its audience—Pokemon really lucked out with that enigmatic-yet-evocative portmanteau—but, most importantly, Yokai Watch is an intensely Japanese experience.

Shinto shrines: not exactly a common element of most American forests.

So, what exactly are these titular Yokai? Nintendo of America's press release offers the following tautology: "Yo-kai: They are not ghosts, monsters or creatures. Yo-kai are, quite simply, Yo-kai." Level-5's international site seems to disagree with its summation of the game's premise, though: "Yokai, the spirits that effect people's lives in mysterious ways, have always been invisible to the human eye. That is, until the main character happens upon a strange watch that allows him to see what has never been seen before..."

Of course, you only need to do a simple Google search to learn the truth about Yokai. In a nutshell, this term (sometimes transliterated as "Youkai") refers to a class of supernatural spirits whose origins can be found in the Shinto religion. Odds are, if you've played a Japanese video game, you've encountered one of these yokai before: Heck, Super Mario Bros. 3's tanuki suit draws inspiration from those fuzzy little shapeshifters of the same name—even if they also happen to be real animals. Though "yokai" stands as an extremely broad term, the important part of this concept is how much it ties into animism: the belief that anything can have a spirit lurking inside. So "yokai" doesn't necessarily have to refer to creatures and ghostly, humanoid figures—anything from paper lanterns to umbrellas can contain their own preternatural sparks of life.

If you enjoy studying mythology and religion, Yokai can be endlessly fascinating, especially when you notice how often Japanese game developers dip into this particular well when searching for inspiration. So it's been odd to see Nintendo quickly dismiss the origin of yokai in their slightly patronizing press release—especially as Pokemon itself incorporates more of these supernatural creatures. If I had to make an educated guess, Nintendo probably had no choice but to use Yokai Watch's original title for its release outside of Japan; many Japanese publishers make such demands for the sake of branding—which is why Danganronpa's villainous Monokuma didn't have his name changed to "Monobear" or some alternative. Regardless of whether or not they were stuck with "Yokai Watch," though, the dismissal of "yokai" as a fun, nonsense word feels a little insulting.

Super Mario Bros. 3 left one element of tanukis on the cutting-room floor. See if you can spot it!

Of course, there's no real outrage to be had here; Yokai Watch is literally a goofy kids' game, so it's not attempting a serious theological exploration of Shintoism or anything like that. And its use of yokai resembles that of many, many other Japanese games: a way to incorporate some honestly cool ideas for monsters and characters without having to create them from scratch. So really, what's the problem with non-Japanese kids knowing about this concept? Most likely, Nintendo is trying as best they can to temper Yokai Watch's foreignness for the sake of appealing to consumers outside of its home country—a monumental task, considering just how Japanese its characters and setting are. I also sense a tinge of concern about the game's ties to Shintoism (however tangential) and its inherent spirits and demons; after all, kooks didn't need much help connecting Pikachu and his clan to The Dark Lord Satan Himself, so they'd most likely have a field day with something like Yokai Watch. American children, befriending Japanese demons from another religion? I can already hear the bibles being thumped.

Though Nintendo has some valid, business-related reasons to whitewash Yokai Watch, I can't help but get the feeling they're really shortchanging American kids who wouldn't otherwise be exposed to this facet of Japanese culture. Growing up as a sheltered suburbanite in the Midwest—and lacking the Internet for my first 14 years—I treasured the few times localizers let Japanese references slip by, simply because I wouldn't have absorbed this information any other way. Years before a (terrible) sushi restaurant opened up in my hometown, I learned about everything from sashimi to chiraishi via cooking in Japanese RPGs, and seeing the same monsters pop up so often in video games—often with different names—eventually led me to learn all about the strange world of yokai. And, in all honesty, Americans might be a little more familiar with these creatures than Nintendo thinks; 2002's Spirited Away—the only Studio Ghibli movie to ever win an Oscar—essentially acts as a two-hour parade of these Japanese spirits.

Children are fascinated by the unfamiliar more often than not, so it's disheartening to see Nintendo trying to mute the cultural aspects of Yokai Watch—even if the game itself treats these ideas playfully. And this trend of whitewashing isn't exclusive to Nintendo, either; Americanizing foreign media for kids has been a longstanding trend, even if said media is English-language to begin with. When Scholastic began publishing the Harry Potter books in the USA, they did their best to remove the various uses of British English peppered throughout; "dustbins" became "trashcans," "mummy" became "mommy," "crisps" became "chips," and American children were finally freed from the terrifying notion that English speakers from other countries might say things different than them.

Spirited Away: essentially, Yokai: The Movie.

Ultimately, changes like these are negligible, and I imagine the US version of Yokai Watch will play out roughly the same regardless of how the localization handles the source material; still, it's always disappointing to see cultural texture sanded off a piece of media for the sake of making it more palatable. H.L. Mencken once said, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public," but, then again, this was uttered when most Americans didn't have access to the entire world's knowledge at their fingertips. We've come a looong way since the days of onigiri being passed off as jelly donuts in the Pokemon cartoon.

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