Pokémon Red and Blue came out in 1996, during a surprisingly sad period in Japanese history. Following the financial collapse of 1991, Japan went through a period known as the Lost Decade. The guarantee of a life-long job disappeared. People were working as hard or harder to succeed, but it was difficult getting anywhere because the economy was in shambles. The pressure was isolating, and the country entered a long period of cultural pessimism.
In response to recession stress, people searched for iyashi: ways to relieve anxiety and escape loneliness. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the USA is going through a similar cycle following the Great Recession of the late 2000s — but we call it “self-care.”
Emotional intimacy became an industry. That’s what the healing boom was: the commoditization of closeness.
Japan already had a culture of adorable characters. Before the healing boom, a kawaii icon like Hello Kitty or Doraemon would be slapped on a purse or turned into bento lunch. But this new desire for closeness meant that people wanted more; they wanted interaction. The new mascots were things you cared for and got emotional satisfaction from.
The result was robotic pets like Paro and AIBO, and franchises like Tamagotchi, Digimon — and, of course, Pokémon.
So what set it apart from the rest?
Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokémon, grew up in rural Machida in the early 70s. He was obsessed with discovering and collecting insects. It was a group activity: the kids shared information about how best to catch bugs.
When Machida industrialized, so did Tajiri’s interests. He became passionate about video games. When he started making his own, he wanted modern children to experience the idyllic feeling of catching critters, and the communal aspect was an important part of that.
He imagined “actual living organisms moving back and forth across the cable,” according to Time. An aspiring Pokémon master had to physically link with other players to complete their Pokedex.
Pokémon were virtual companions, like plenty of other products at the time. But there was no way to catch ‘em all without meeting other players. It encouraged developing real-life relationships, at a time when people were desperately looking for that.
Watch the video above to learn more about Pokémon’s cultural context!