Pokemon Creator Draws Creativity from Autism


Courtesy: Pokemon.com / Miki Tanaka

Whenever I feel nostalgic about my sons’ early years, Pokemon is always a large part of those memories. I can still see my one son, a vision of yellow, dressed as Pikachu for Halloween, or the excitement in his and his brother’s eyes when they each dug a pack of Pokemon cards from the toe of their Christmas stockings. The cards provided some of their few happy playground experiences interacting with their neurotypical peers due to the fact that all children shared the universal language of Pokemon. 

I recently discovered that like my sons, the creator of Pokemon is on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum. Long thought to have Asperger’s Syndrome, Mr. Satoshi Tajiri has confirmed this information, yet does not speak of his condition in public. This reclusive and eccentric man, who is known to work twenty-four hours at a time, spawned the gaming phenomenon that took the world by storm through his special interest in insects. 

Growing up in rural Japan, Satoshi was obsessed with insects — to the point where he was dubbed “Dr. Bug” by other children. He spent every spare moment studying and collecting them, but when he realized that some of them kill each other in captivity, he let them go. 

Soon, the rice paddies and woods of his hometown became apartment buildings and shopping centers and his local fishing pond was replaced by an arcade center. In reaction, his interests shifted to anime and video games. He became a passionate player of Donkey Kong, even starting his own business as a teenager who published tips and shortcuts to the game. He dropped out of high school, but later enrolled in a technical college.

His first original game was something he did entirely on his own, starting by dismantling a Nintendo system to see how it worked. At the age of sixteen, he won a Sega contest for best new game idea. He spent the next two years learning programming and the third year producing his first game, Quinty.

By then, the Nintendo Game Boy had hit the market and the idea for Pokemon was hatched. Sparked by his lost love of insects, he wanted to reawaken an awareness of nature in urbanized youth. Gameboy seemed the perfect medium. The communication aspect of Game Boy profoundly touched Mr. Tajiri and the fact that it had a communication cable lead him to realize that actual living organisms could move back and forth across the cable. At that time, the cable was only used for players to compete against one another, but he wanted to design a game that also involved interactive communication. He envisioned the competitive aspect of Pokemon as being ritualistic and respectful, like two Karate champions or sumo wrestlers.

Mr. Tajiri, now in his forties, eschews the current violence of video games and describes this is as a cultural norm in Japan as well. He wanted to have his characters faint instead of die, because he believes children should “respect death." When asked about having monsters in a children’s game, he uses the analogy of a horse who is dangerous if he gallops over you, but a useful friend if you are riding him. He added, “What’s more important is that the monsters are controllable by the players. It could be the monster within yourself, fear or anger, for example. And they are put in capsules." 

As for children who spend too much time playing video games, he explained that in Japan, children attend school much more than their American counterparts and only have time to play video games in small increments. 

Interestingly, he observed that in Japan, the popular Pokemon “Pikachu” products are sold alone, but in the United States, there are more products with Pikachu and and his human Ash together. He believes Americans actually understand Pokemon more than the Japanese do because they comprehend the necessity of the human aspect.

And if you’re wondering where Pikachu and all the other names for the monsters come from, they each have a real and specific meaning. 

Take Pikachu. ‘Pika’ is the Japanese sound for an electric spark, and ‘chu’ is the sound a mouse makes. So Pikachu is like an electric mouse. And “Poliwhirl” is reminiscent of a tadpole. 

Recalling his childhood field observations, Satoshi explained that there are little whirls on Poliwhirl because when you pick up a tadpole, you can see its intestines.

Once again, we discover that the world is a richer place because of the fascinating contributions made by individuals on the autism spectrum. The fact that Satoshi Tajiri, who was both socially and emotionally challenged by his disorder, could bring such joy to so many children is both heartwarming and inspiring.

34 Responses to Pokemon Creator Draws Creativity from Autism

  1. ronny wilkins says:

    Beautiful article I have a seven year old asserted it gives me hope for future

  2. Susan says:

    Thank you. I found Mr. Tajiri’s story quite moving as well…Susan Moffitt

  3. Greg says:

    No wonder my boys are so crazy about Pokemon! They have a kindred spirit in there!

  4. Bernie says:

    Thanks so much to Mr Tajiri. Pokemon give my son so much pleasure.

  5. Melanie S. says:

    What a beautiful story. Pokémon is a great series, and definitely among the most positive cultural influences on children today.

  6. Scott says:

    This is a great success story! Find the passion in people with ASD and look at the results.Find a way to spark that drive and desire! Embrace the obsessions and good things can happen.

  7. I agree with the comments from Greg and Melanie. It is so great for us all to have such a successful, talented man like Mr. Satoshi share his special gifts. I know my children enjoy is work immensely–most likely because they can relate so well on such a deeper level. The respect he teaches his audience through his craft is returned by their dedication and appreciation for so many happy and interesting exchanges. Thank you for bringing his story to light. Namaste ~ Blessings!

  8. AspieMomma says:

    My son is 6 years old and has high funtioning autism and has been fascinated with pokemon for about 3 months now. Since pokemon has entered our lives, my son has been having nightmares about being abandoned. These dreams have become increasingly vivid and violent. Our caregiver who does respite for our family saw our son meltdown for the first time tonight and asked me if my son has been having abandonment dreams. I was shocked… This woman has cared for children as a profession for over 30 years and is VERY switched on. She mentioned that she has seen at least 5 other children (on and off the spectrum) who started having abandonment nightmares. I am currently “weaning” my son off of pokemon… but I really would like to know if any other parents have seen an increase in nightmares about abandonment in their children since pokemon entered their lives. Please post back… as I just would like to know if anyone else has experienced this. Thanks for reading :)

  9. Myself says:

    AspieMomma, I’ve been in love with Pokémon ever since I can remember.
    I’m 18, I think I got into it when I was six or seven.
    I can’t remember one dream ever having to do with abandonment.
    Not my cousins, my friends, no one I knew who liked Pokémon growing up.
    However, I have nothing at all to do with the new Pokémon…because the story has been recycled about four times, and Ash, [the protagonist] has had friends leave, he dumped all his old Pokémon on Professor Oak to make room for new ones.

    If your son wants Pokémon, give him the old Pokémon.
    Pokémon was the best part of my childhood.
    It had morals, warm feelings, love, taught lessons, and the like.

    The new Pokémon is awful, and I would never let my future kids touch it.

  10. Susan says:

    Thanks for writing. The old Pokemon was very special.

    My teenage sons hate the new Pokemon and the new D & D as well.

  11. Robin says:

    I have done some research on this and I would not say this if it were not true, but Pokemon (and disturbingly much of the media being fed to our kids) is witchcraft/ occult related. They (and we) are slowly being desensitized into false gods!! I think it is natural to not be aware of this and that is by design. My kids (high functioning autism) LOVE Pokemon… my 21 year old son has spent half his life immersed in Pokemon, then Yu gi oh and on to Magic: the gathering. Pokemon seemed so cute and harmless, but the problem is that as an older child/ young adult, they have been taught by Pokemon themes what is right and wrong and not by you (regardless of whether you believe that or not).

    PLEASE everyone; research the connection between Pokemon and witchcraft/ the occult!!!!

  12. Connor W says:

    Awesome article there.

    @Robin
    For years you egghead zealots are always trying draw many connections with Pokemon and “The occult”, take a break and stop trying to scrutinize this article and Pokemon and your religion with your lack of knowledge,and bedsides, how could something that brings happiness, entertainment,lessons,and adventure be connected to what you believe? please think about that.

  13. Susan says:

    Hear! Hear!

  14. Stormy says:

    My son is 6 and also loves Pokemon. What a loving man the creator is to have thought about making a game with monsters that compete but never die. Im not a fan of Japanese anime and feel the art is deviod of soul and never liked Pokemon to be honest but for my son who is high functioning ASD it has given him not only the fun that it privides typical boys but security as well being autistic and an only child. Ive never had a single episode of abandonment because of Pokemon so that is something specific to your child and homelife I would bet. My son carries his Pokemon plush toys to bet and kisses them and sleeps with them.
    We have to remember a couple things about modern culture and our boys, autistic or nuerotypical. Boys love to compete, they love sports, they are very visual, they want friends, they have rich fantasy lives, and they love games and monsters, but there are fewer and fewer outlets for all this. As much as we as parents get disgusted with the growing bombardment of all this tv and gaming culture that seems to strip creativity from our kids lives, it also in a strange way forms the origins for their own creativity later as adults. My son makes up his own Pokemons now and powers. I ask you all, what toys from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s do you remember getting at Christmas and did it enrich your childhood or pervert it? Mine was monsters and army men and dungeons and dragons and all that creative energy has allowed me to make a six figure salary problem solving very technical problems at my job. Lets not over analyze culture and let our kids love what they love. Pokemon is one part of that pleasure. Its just a fun toy!

  15. Susan says:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. My high functioning twins are 16 and are very nostalgic about growing up with Pokemon. It anchors their childhood. They still play the games on the DS.

  16. Francisco Mnedez says:

    I cant stop crying.Beautiful and Hope for all of us..I love you Marilyn.

  17. “Mr. Tajiri, now in his forties, eschews the current violence of video games and describes this is as a cultural norm in Japan as well.”

    haha yeah violence in video games is bad and is really lame *goes back to making dog-fighting simulator*

  18. sum yung guy says:

    False!

    Pika is a mouse found in the mountains of North America and Asia. An electric spark? really?

  19. me says:

    No big suprise

  20. Moya says:

    @sum yung guy: Actually, that is just a coincidence. “Pika” is indeed a common Japanese onomatopoeia for a flash or spark of light. Just as the “rai” in Raichu, Pikachu’s evolution, is something like a prefix for anything related to thunder.

    This was a wonderful article, thank you!

  21. Susan says:

    thanks for your insight.

  22. Mikey Holland says:

    Okay, first, I would like to say that this article was very well written! As a long time fan (since it first aired, back in 1998), the way the article highlights Tajiri’s past, as well as the here and now was quite well done.

    Now, as for what Robin said, about the connection to the occult, and “being desensitized into false gods”, quite frankly, that’s a total lie. Your claim makes you seem like you are a conspiracy theorist, not a concerned parent. There are no connections to the occult in Pokémon. There never have been, and there never will be. It IS, however, a Japanese game, anime, card game, and toy franchise, that has been going since 1996 (1998 in North America), and has earned it’s spot as an international icon.

    Now, back to the original topic, when I first heard about Tajiri being on the spectrum, I was quite pleased to know this. This is an example of a genius with a mental disorder, overcoming barriers, and creating something of epic proportions, loved by millions.

  23. Susan Moffitt says:

    Mikey, I appreciate your comments. I think the whole occult thing is way off base as well. By the way, autism is a neurological rather than a mental disorder. Again, thanks for writing.

  24. Mikey Holland says:

    Oh, that’s right. My mistake!

  25. Susan says:

    No worries.

  26. Amy says:

    Hi,
    I am a highschool teacher of students with additional needs including a large group of students who have autism. We are starting our own Cafe to teach some of my students some valuable life skills. We are naming the cafe, Cafe Tajiri after Mr Tajiri. Would you mind if I post your article inside our small cafe? It is beautifully written. With thanks,
    Amy

  27. juan says:

    @ robin

    Don’t feel discouraged to tell the truth,
    because someone calls you an egghead zealot.
    And their inability to provide a valid argument, and reduce themselves to name calling.
    Thank you for your input.

  28. Susan Moffitt says:

    It’s a free forum, but obviously Mr. Tajiri had pure motivations in creating Pokemon born of his unique perspective and life experiences.

  29. Lukas says:

    I’m 18 and am a huge Pokemon fan. In fact, Pokemon is not just a child’s thing. No, it is a universal thing for all ages to discover and enjoy. Many of my college friends and peers play Pokemon. I for one don’t care about how good the new or old pokemon is/was…its still pokemon! Also, the whole occult thing? Complete, total, and utter BS! I’m a christian man and the idea that witchcraft is assoiated w/ pokemon, is unrealistic.

  30. Susan says:

    People can read things into anything.

  31. Lucario says:

    I know I will probably be hated on for saying this, but it is indeed true that Pokemon is connected to witchcraft/antichristian views (for those of you who care). Evidence of such things are very clear by the number of ghosts and psychics, as well as the different creation stories in Pokemon (not to mention Lopunny is straight up based on the Playboy bunny). Satoshi I believe has actually stated that the entire point of Pokemon evolving is there to strike out against Christianity, which does not believe in evolution. But Im a Christian, and frankly I dont really care. Im 18 now and Ive loved Pokemon my whole life. For me to shun Pokemon because of its connections to such things would be the same as me shunning a person for connections to that. I dont have to agree with those connections, but that doesnt make it horrible. Not only that, but the connections are too subtle to be picked up by children anyway, and would in no way influence a person to become bad. Im a Christian. I have friends who arent Christian. I like Pokemon which is not exactly Christian. So what? Accept it for what it is. Harmless fun that is good for all ages.

  32. Susan says:

    “Satoshi I believe has actually stated that the entire point of Pokemon evolving is there to strike out against Christianity” – do you have a reference for this??

  33. Uwe says:

    I don’t see how ghost and psychic pokemon can be anti-christian, in the first season of pokemon the onlt ghost pokemon was gastly, haunter and gengar, and when ash tried to catch one of them in the haunted tower all of them were quite playful and mischievous but only because they were lonely, (which is the main reason why ghost pokemon are among my favorite!) And once haunter befriended that gym leader with the kadabra I knew that ghost-psychic pokemon can’t all be evil or something, so it is just hard for me to see how the creators wanted to portray ghost and psychic pokemon as evil. The same with Darkrai who is a dark type, in the pokedex of platinum it states that it only causes nightmares to protect itself, however it means no harm. And in the movie Darkrai was protecting everyone from dialga and palkia so this is my hypothesis about why I think pokemon aren’t associated with anti christian.

  34. Susan says:

    very informatively framed argument!

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