Lesson #4: Tread Carefully Into New Waters

Today, the popularity of Pokemon throughout the world has led some to dub the phenomenon “Pokemania.” From Japan to the U.S., children are fascinated by anything and everything Pokemon: the cards, the toys, the websites, the candy, and the list goes on. But when Tajiri first thought about expanding his brand, he was not quite sure what to expect.

After the initial launch of Pokemon, Nintendo executives were eager to capitalize on its success. They wanted to see the Pokemon brand on everything from trading cards to toys to food to movies. They wanted to charge full steam ahead and get the most out of the game. Tajiri, however, was more cautious.

Tajiri knew that there were differences between Japanese and American audiences. He knew that what kids in Japan loved might not necessarily fly with kids in the U.S. “At first, I was a little concerned,” he says. “It depends on how people are introduced to Pokemon. If they start with the TV show, or with the cards, or the video game, they approach it differently each time.”

One specific concern was the introduction of a non-violent game in a country where violent games were the biggest sellers. In fact, to Tajiri, it seemed as if the more violent the games were, the better they sold in the U.S. With Pokemon, Tajiri says, “I was really careful in making monsters faint rather than die. I think that young people playing games have an abnormal concept about dying. They start to lose and say, ‘I’m dying.’ It’s not right for kids to think about a concept of death that way. They need to treat death with more respect.”

A video game that teaches respect? Would American audiences go for that? “In Japan, violence in games is pretty much self-regulated. In the 1980s, there was a game called Bullfighter where the matador stabbed the bull and red blood squirted out,” says Tajiri. “The day after it was released, they changed the blood to green. There's more violence in games in the U.S., in things like Mortal Kombat, where they rip out hearts and cut off heads. Japanese people wouldn't come up with ideas of blood splattering all over. Japanese focus more on the intricacies of the actions, the motion.”

So while Nintendo executives were busy planning for expansion, Tajiri knew some changes would have to be made if his franchise was going to be successful overseas. And that is why they decided to make such changes as removing all of the identifiably Japanese characteristics of the game, including the characters names. Satoshi was changed to Ash, Shigeru to Gary, and so on.

Tajiri refused to move too quickly without making the necessary changes. His cautiousness was rewarded when some of America’s biggest players came calling. Hasbro paid $325 million to market Pokemon toys. The WB network bought the rights to the animated TV show. And, Warner released the Pokemon movie. It was so popular that its opening day saw thousands of children call in sick to their school with what was later called the “Pokemon flu.”

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