If you are on the internet at all these days, you’ll notice the huge craze that is Pokémon Go! Pokémon has been around for over 20 years and has brought joy to countless children and adults alike. However, being Japanese, there are a huge amount of pokémon in the franchise with references to Shinto, Buddhism, Taoism/Daoism and more!
Here are some pokémon with strong ties to Japanese folklore!
(All images are copyrighted to Nintendo/Game Freak/The Pokémon Company.)
Vulpix (ロコン Rokon) is a reddish-brown fox pokémon with six tails.Its pokédex entry states: ´At the time of birth, it has just one tail. The tail splits from its tip as it grows older‘. This pokémon is quite obviously inspired by the kitsune of Japanese folklore.
Ninetales (キュウコン Kyukon) is a fox pokémon with white-gold fur and nine beautiful tails. The Omega Ruby pokédex describes ‘Ninetales casts a sinister light from its bright red eyes to gain total control over its foe’s mind. This Pokémon is said to live for one thousand years.‘ Again, this pokémon is inspired by the kitsune of lore, specifically the ‘good’ kitsune associated with good luck and longevity.
Zorua (ゾロア Zorua) is another kitsune-type pokémon, but this time taking inspiration from the more mischievous side of the creatures. It is small and grey in colour with facial markings similar to kitsune statues or Kabuki or Noh theatre makeup. Zorua is able to transform into a human but still retains its tail like the kitsune in Japanese legend.
Zoroark (ゾロアーク Zoroark) is the evolved form of Zorua and is a bipedal fox with similar colours to its predecessor. Like Zorua, it also has theatrical makeup-style markings. This pokémon has the special ability to transform into other pokémon, fooling the opponent, until it receives damage and reverts back into its true form. This is based on the stories of kitsune taking different forms in order to fool people.
Meowth (ニャース Nyarth) is a cream-coloured bipedal cat pokémon with a koban (an ancient coin) on its head. It is based on the maneki neko (招き猫), a type of lucky cat charm used to bring in luck and money to homes and businesses. These cats are nearly always seen holding a koban, just like the one on Meowth’s head. The Japanese species name also suggests it may also be based on a bakeneko.
Espeon (エーフィ Eifie) is a light purple cat-like pokémon which resembles a nekomata. These cat youkai are characterized by their forked tails and intelligence. The pokédex states ‘Its fur is so sensitive, it can sense minute shifts in the air and predict the weather.‘ associating this pokémon with supernatural powers, much like the nekomata.
Raikou (ライコウ Raikou) is a legendary ‘dog’ pokémon, more closely resembling a cat. It is based on the raijuu (雷獣), a thunder demon said to be the companion of Raijin. The creature is said to be able to take the form of a tiger, a monkey or a blue wolf wrapped in lightning. Raikou appears to be based on the tiger form.
Entei (エンテイ Entei) is another legendary ‘dog’ which more closely resembles a lion. It is based on a shishi guardian liondog and is shown to be very protective in the anime adaptions.
Meowstic (ニャオニクス Nyaonix) is a psychic-type cat pokémon which is one of few to exhibit sexual dimorphism. Both sexes have two tails split at the base. They are based on the domestic form of the nekomata.
Growlithe (ガーディ Gardie) is a dog fire-type pokémon. Growlithe is based on komainu (狛犬) and shisha (獅子) guardian statues. These statues seem to be a mix of lion/tiger/dogs and would explain Growlithes colouration. Growlithe is said to be incredibly loyal and protective, which fits with the associations.
Arcanine (ウインディ Windie) is the evolved form of Growlithe and also seems to be based on komainu and shisha statues. It is also believed to be based on Haetae, a mythological fire-eating creature similar to dogs and lions.
Suicune (スイクン Suicune) is the third legendary ‘dog’ pokémon, this time associated with water. Although it is more dog-like in appearance than the other two, it is believed to be based on the kirin, a legendary beast which is a mix of a dragon, deer, big cats and unicorns. The spots on Suicunes body also represent the leopard spots which the kami Fujin wears.
Drowzee (スリープ Sleep) is a strange psychic-type pokémon based on the Japanese myth of the baku. These creatures are said to eat bad dreams of people and are similar in appearance to tapirs. To confirm the connection, the Pokémon Stadium pokédex states ‘It puts its enemy to sleep and eats the victim’s dreams. Said to have descended from the legendary beast, Baku.‘.
Gyarados (ギャラドス Gyarados) is a large water-type pokémon which resembles a dragon. It is based on the mythological Asian dragons and is known to control the seas. It is violent and unpredictable, causing hurricanes and destruction. The pokédex states ‘Once Gyarados goes on a rampage, its ferociously violent blood doesn’t calm until it has burned everything down. There are records of this Pokémon’s rampages lasting a whole month.‘ This pokémon with its water association could also be based around the kami Ryujin.
Shiftry (ダーテング Dirteng) are pokémon based on tengu. Tengu are creatures known for their intelligence, trickery, mind-reading and protection of forests. They wield magical leaf fans called 羽団扇 hauchiwa, which have the power to stir up forceful winds. They are often depicted with long noses and flowing white hair, as well as their signature clogs called tengu-geta.
Castform (ポワルン Powalen) are small pokémon based on the teru teru bōzu dolls and culture. It appears to be a small cloud and may change its form depending on the weather.From the pokémon sapphire pokédex: ‘Castform borrows the power of nature to transform itself into guises of the sun, rain clouds, and snow clouds. This Pokémon’s feelings change with the weather.’.
Jirachi (ジラーチ Jirachi) is a legendary pokémon which resembles a star. It has strips of paper on its head which are based on the paper strips (短冊, tanzaku) written on Tanabata (The Star Festival). This pokémon has the power to grant wishes.
Chingling (リーシャン Lisyan) and Chimecho (チリーン Chirean) are pokémon based on a Shinto suzu (鈴) bell and a Japanese fūrin wind chime. Both these pokémon represent the belief of sentient objects in Japanese folklore.
Musharna (ムシャーナ Musharna) is a psychic-type pokémon which like Drowzee, eats dreams. Also like Drowzee, Musharna is based on the legend of the Baku. It also seems to be based on traditional Japanese incense burners, koro, as it emits `dream mist` from its head.
Darumaka (ダルマッカ Darumakka) is a fire-type pokémon that strongly resembles a daruma doll. It’s likely a fire-type because of the traditional daruma burning ceremonies. Daruma (達磨) are a hollow doll from Buddhism but are usually used as good luck and wish charms in modern Japan.
Well, that’s as many as I could find that were the most prominent! I hope you enjoyed this post, a little different this time I know!
I may do more posts on Shinto in pop culture in the future as it’s always a very exciting and interesting subject to me, let me know what you guys think!
Thanks for reading!