“Of Crickets and Gourds: Pokemon as Ancient Chinese Folk Game”


Full disclosure: I love Pokemon. For some people, being passionate about a topic invalidates research by destroying objectivity. I don’t find this particularly bothersome for two reasons: 1) I would rather be fully honest and open than worry about portraying myself as a sort of uber-professional and 2) the scholarly insight that one is supposed to gain by embedding with a community seems as if it would be hampered by ignoring the personal feelings to which participant observation naturally leads. After all, how can one hope to interpret a community predicated on an activity of enjoyment without, well, enjoying the activity? With that caveat, here is the story of a cultural phenomenon that people have been sharing with one another for over 1800 years, almost entirely because of personal enjoyment.

History: China

(Gourd Cricket Containers; Cultural Entomology Digest 3)

People in China have been keeping crickets as pets since before recorded history. Gourd cages for carrying around these musical companions have been found that predate most of the established ancient empires (see links below). The tale really begins in the Tang period (600-900 C.E.). At that time it became high fashion for courtiers to carry around decorative boxes and gourds with various species of cricket inside. The different species were prized for their songs and the more expensive containers were even shaped to optimize acoustics. This is a practice that continues today, in fact, as a great many people in China how been known to use recordings of insect songs as their ringtones.

To wit, you can’t fix a critter fight.

One of the distinguishing features of the Tang dynasty was the influence it had on surrounding cultures. China has gone through alternating phases of isolationism and extroversion (historian Valerie Hansen calls it the “open empire”), with the Tang being one of its most outgoing periods. At the same time, it’s often seen as a golden age for the creative arts and, thanks to some pretty savvy domestic policies and robust foreign trade, leisure activities flourished at all levels of society. Among these were pursuits that may strike modern Western readers as… distasteful. They included cockfighting, goose fighting, ram fighting, and, of course, cricket fighting. All of these were enjoyed by different classes of people, but it’s safe to say that three broad categories will suffice: men who looked to profit by gambling on the matches; upper class scholars and bureaucrats; and children. As will become important later, all of these people mixed together at the contests, which served as a social leveling mechanism since victory could never be fully assured for any given bout. To wit, you can’t fix a critter fight.

History: Japan

That members of the literati were so taken with animal and bug fighting is important for two reasons. First, they left a paper trail of poetry, songs, and other accounts of how the games were played. Second, the Tang period resulted in probably the single most impactful foreign influence on Japanese culture until it was pried open by American gunships at the end of the nineteenth century. Japanese culture is, to a large extent, Tang culture (I’m told that this is a provocative statement, so for evidence see Benedict 1946, 49). So it was that the Japanese upper class took to copying their Chinese counterparts by carrying around musical insects and betting on cockfights.

The biome of the Japanese archipelago varies somewhat from most of China and the species of insects reflect this variation. Again, we can thank the literati for giving us a trail of writing and art to trace the cultural changes. Much is made in Japanese poetry of suzumushi (literally “bell bug”), the bell-cricket. They produce an especially lovely tune and there’s even a temple dedicated to them in Kyoto. The world’s oldest novel, The Tale of Genji (1021 C.E.), features a scene in which several characters go on a hunt for suzumushi. Other insects favored by the Japanese for their musical abilities are discussed at length in Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Musicians.

Apparently it was a natural fit for people to start collecting these beetles and pitting them against one another.

Deserving special mention, though, are Japan’s warrior insects, the kabutomushi (literally “helmet bug”), or rhinoceros beetle, and the kuwagatamushi (literally “hoe-shaped bug” in reference to a particular kind of helmet), or stag beetle. Taking their names from samurai headgear, males of these species are especially belligerent when it comes to defending their territory, hence the prodigious, horn-like protrusions. Apparently it was a natural fit for people to start collecting these beetles and pitting them against one another. By the seventeenth century, insect vending was a full-time occupation.

(Beetle fighting in Odaiba, Tokyo; Lee Chapman: http://www.tokyotimes.org/)

Any Japanese man who went through childhood during the 70s, 80s, or 90s is likely to hold a degree of nostalgia for recreational entomology.

The Japanese love of bugs continued, unabated, through WWII. As the nation rebuilt itself into a modern industrial power, the metropolitan centers grew larger than ever before. Tokyo, arguably the largest city in the world by both geography and population, became the center of economic and cultural activity. As happened all over the world at this time, the influx of people to urban environments meant that fewer of them were interacting with the natural ecosystem on a daily basis. People could now live their entire lives, in fact, without ever brushing against poison ivy. Consequently, the activity of collecting various insects for educational purposes was taken up by schools and local governments. By the 1970s a regular part of Japanese rural education involved spending time in the outdoors, catching bugs.       Perhaps it was the poverty of the postwar years, the involvement of educators in the activity, or maybe Japanese workers were simply too busy to bother with it, but sometime between the 1920s and the 1970s beetle fighting went out of fashion among gamblers and instead took on the patina of a (relatively) wholesome activity. That’s not to say it turned into a children’s game. Indeed, surveys indicate that most insect collectors in Japan are still men in their 30s and 40s, but as gambling became less common, those left to catch and trade insects as a hobby were doing it for fun and intellectual curiosity. The few who did (and still do) make money from the industry tend to run shops that sell bug-catching gear and rare or exotic invertebrates—often of a questionably legal nature given the ecological risks of importing foreign species. Either way, any Japanese man who went through childhood during the 70s, 80s, or 90s is likely to hold a degree of nostalgia for recreational entomology.

Popular Culture

So what does this have to do with Pokemon? Much like the recent obsession in Hollywood with making films out of franchises that capitalize on nostalgia, back in 1989 the fellow who originated the games was an upstart young programmer, trying to break into the computer game industry. Satoshi Tajiri’s youth had been spent, of course, collecting and battling bugs with his friends. He felt sorry for children raised in urban Tokyo, aware that they would never experience the magic of netting a kabutomushi and training it to engage in gladiatorial combat. Long-story-short, he and friend (and later Pokemon illustrator) Ken Sugimori started up an arcade fanzine called Game Freak.

Tajiri missed the community-building aspect of bug collecting and, combining his interests, set to work designing a game through which kids could experience what he remembered from his own childhood.

When Nintendo released the Gameboy and Tajiri saw the link cable, he was struck with the idea of using it cooperatively. At that time (the early 90s) games were only using the ability to share data for competition. Even Tetris had a feature to hook up with another Gameboy and compete over high scores. Tajiri missed the community-building aspect of bug collecting and, combining his interests, set to work designing a game through which kids could experience what he remembered from his own childhood. “I want to…create a game that doesn’t pick on kids who don’t have friends, but increases the number of friends they do have. An environment with that purpose is what I want to make.” It took him and his small team six years to complete the game. Tajiri wrote most of the code by himself and designing the characters alongside Sugimori. When it was completed, they pitched the game to Nintendo, where it was received with trepidation. Still, the video game giant was willing to offer Tajiri a third-party license and, thus, Pokemon (a portmanteau of “pocket” and “monster”) was born.

Without going into a great deal of detail on the history of animal fighting in the Euro-American tradition, suffice to say that, by the 90s, Westerners had more mixed opinions of such activities than did their Japanese and Chinese counterparts. Consider Mark Twain’s reflection upon attending a cockfight:

I never saw people enjoy anything more than this gathering enjoyed this fight. The case was the same with old gray-heads and with boys often. They lost themselves in frenzies of delight. The ‘cocking-main’ is an inhuman sort of entertainment, there is no question about that; still, it seems a much more respectable and far less cruel sport than fox-hunting — for the cocks like it; they experience, as well as confer enjoyment; which is not the fox’s case. (Life on the Mississippi, 1883)

It’s interesting that Twain seems torn over his own distaste for the “inhuman sort of entertainment” and the apparent enjoyment of the human/animal community in the event. Regardless of personal stance, the U.S. government has, in the present day, almost entirely outlawed animal fights of any kind. It’s difficult to legislate human nature, though, and it appears quite prevalent in human cultures the world over to rear and fight animals. In 1995, for instance, despite local, state, and federal laws, the largest raid of a cockfighting group in U.S. history took place. The desire for non-human combat games continued unabated, if more clandestinely.

Ray Rizzo, 2012 Pokemon Video Game World Champion – Masters Division; The Pokemon Company International

When the Pokemon video games were released in North America in 1998, then, the timing seems to have been fortuitous. Children could collect digital creatures of all kinds, raise them, and pit them against one another in friendly matches that saw no damage of any kind. To be sure, it’s highly unlikely that any former fighting cock owners reformed themselves by picking up a copy of Pokemon Red, but I would argue that, on a fundamental psychic level, the apparent inborn desire of at least some people to arrange combative animal contests was—and continues to be—mitigated through the channel of Tajiri’s creation.


The most well-known scholarly work on Pokemon is a 2004 collection of critical essays under the title Pikachu’s Global Adventure. The contributions are disparate in quality, but the central theme is that Pokemon was a fad of the late 90s that would soon disappear from the pop culture landscape. The volume is dated now and, even at its release, suffered from weak scholarship both in terms of fieldwork and background research. As should be evident at this point, Pokemon as a particular packaged product may have been short-lived (although it wasn’t), but the community-based activity of collecting and battling small creatures in the interest of fostering social relations is ancient. Global Adventure’s contributors, for the most part, also neglected to conduct long-term participant observation.

Here I’d like to return to an issue raised in the first paragraph: interpretation of a cultural practice is stymied without engaging in said practice, both externally and emotionally. It’s also worth noting that most of the essays in Global Adventure have an underlying negative bias against consumerism. Given that nothing as weighty as a published book has come out in the decade since its printing, and as the Pokemon franchise has recently been undergoing yet another boom in popularity, now the time is ripe to give the games, narrative, and community a much-deserved scholarly treatment.


A nice overview of Chinese cricket history

1997 interview with Tajiri from Game Staff List Association

Pikachu’s Global Adventure

A profile of Ray Rizzo, perhaps the greatest Pokemon master in League history

An article on the history of cockfighting in the West

Some paywall-protected sources that might be of interest:
  • Pemperton, Robert W. (2003). Persistence and Change in Traditional Uses of Insects in Contemporary East Asian Cultures. In Insects in oral literature and traditions. Edited by Motte-Florac E, Thomas JMC. Paris: Peeters. Pg. 139-154.
  • Komiyama, Tomoyoshi, Kazuho Ikeo, and Takashi Gojobori (2003). “Where is the origin of the Japanese gamecocks?” Gene 317:195-202.
  • McCrea, Christian (2011). “We Play in Public: The Nature and Context of Portable Gaming Systems.” Convergence 17(4):389-403.
About the Author:
Jared Miracle holds a doctorate in anthropology from Texas A&M University, where his research has focused on transnationalism and folklore between East Asia and the West, especially where violence and the fighting arts are concerned. His professional interests include popular culture, martial arts, East Asia, archives, narrative, masculinity, violence, the supernatural, human exploration of space, and foodways. In addition to anthropology and folk studies, he has experience working in archives and document curation, is fluent in Japanese, can read Mandarin, and is a popular guest speaker on topics involving the martial arts and Japanese popular culture. He is currently seeking a publisher for a manuscript exploring the history and social role of Japanese martial arts in the United States. Jared is also at work on a book about Pokémon from a social scientific perspective. He is available for guest talks and happy to travel or tele-lecture.

About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

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