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Thomas Michael Alleman for TIMEChildren trading cards in San Diego
The answer may lie in the origins of the phenomenon. Despite the publicity generated by the trading cards, the heart of Pokemon is a handheld game. Start by picking up a palm-size Nintendo Game Boy, insert the proper cartridge and switch it on. Soon, a creature with a lightning-bolt tail bounces through an animated sequence, pops a cute grin and yelps, "Pikachu!" You have met the most popular of the Pokemon, a creature--part cherub and part thunder god--that is the most famous mouse since Mickey and Mighty.
Seven-year-olds navigate unerringly through the minuscule screen that is the porthole to Pokedom, punching two tiny buttons and a cross-shaped cursor bar to find their way. It's a more difficult task for adults. But if you choose to play, you assume the role of a Pokemon trainer. Your goal is to travel the world collecting one of every Pokemon species. To acquire that collection, you need Pokemon to subdue Pokemon (they are then stored in handy containers called Pokeballs, hence the etymology of Pokemon, short for Pocket Monsters). The battles are mediated by the electronics of the Game Boy. But don't worry: Pokemon do not die. When they lose battles, they faint. And if that happens to your Pokemon, you can take it to the local Pokemon Center, a high-tech spa where it can be restored to "fighting fit."
There are 151 Pokemon scattered among three existing versions of the game: Pokemon Red, Pokemon Blue and Pokeman Yellow. You have to trade between versions (via a cable linking Game Boys) to complete the collection. Thus the quest for all Pokemon grows as the product line expands with new species. Pokemon Gold and Pokemon Silver will become available in the U.S. next year, with the promise of 260 species.
There is a limit to the role playing. You cannot really choose your identity: you are a 10-year-old boy. You can pick any name when you assume the role of the child--your own, your friend's, your neighbor's. But one particular selection is volunteered: Ash, the name of the hero in the Pokemon TV series. He walks down from his room and, seeing his mother (a father is nowhere to be found), tells her he is departing on a quest. She replies, "Right. All boys leave home someday."
In Japan, where the Pokemon were born, Ash is called Satoshi; and Satoshi was made in the image of his creator, Satoshi Tajiri, a young outcast who, as a boy living just outside Tokyo, collected insects and other tiny creatures of field, pond and forest. In a nation of ultraconformists, he was a misfit who didn't even dream of college. His father tried to get him a job as an electrical-utility repairman. He refused. No one expected him to go very far, even when he came up with the game after six trying years. But it is Tajiri's obsessions, more dysfunctional than Disneyesque, that are at the core of the Pokemon phenomenon. His monsters are a child's predilections. As the late, controversial child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote, "The monster a child knows best and is most concerned with [is] the monster he feels or fears himself to be."
Now 34, Tajiri is an unimposing man, his face composed of sharp angles. His hands and lips tremble as he talks in a soft, shy voice. His eyes are bloodshot; dark circles ripple beneath them. He often works for 24 hours straight, then sleeps for 12. Tajiri is the kind of person the Japanese call otaku, those who shut themselves in with video games or comic books or some other kind of ultraspecialization, away from the rest of society. "They know the difference between the real and virtual worlds, but they would rather be in a virtual world," says Etienne Barral, a French journalist who spent years studying otaku. "They are always accumulating things. The more they have, the better they feel." Thus the first and central rule of Pokemon: accumulate.
As a boy, Tajiri accumulated insects, especially beetles. Even now, he tells TIME, he is proud of the way he captured beetles, looking under rocks to find them sleeping. "Nobody else thought to do that," he says. The son of a Nissan salesman and a housewife, Tajiri was raised in a Tokyo suburb in the late '60s, before the city crept outward. "As a child, I wanted to be an entomologist. Insects fascinated me. Every new insect was a wonderful mystery. And as I searched for more, I would find more. If I put my hand in a river, I would get a crayfish. Put a stick underwater and make a hole, look for bubbles and there were more creatures." In Pokemon the pocket monsters--many in the shape of caterpillars, moths and crabs--can be found anywhere: tall grass, caves, forests, rivers.