In our last two entries into this series, we looked into the history of bloodsports such as cockfighting, dog fighting and animal baiting. We saw how our species’ weird obsession with forcing other species to compete has had significant sociological and ecological outcomes, from the evolution and domestication of certain animals to the economics of various countries. We also saw how these barbaric events are reflected in the narrative and gameplay of the Pokemon series. So is it hypocritical for Pokemon to portray itself as a friendly, rewarding and non-violent competition where monsters and their trainers learn to value love and friendship through combat? Not when we look at the peculiar history of insect fighting. While unheard of in the West, many countries in Asia have storied traditions of insect fighting. In fact, Satoshi Taijiri specifically drew on the culture of Japanese beetle fights and collecting for the premise of Pokemon.
The family Scarabaeidae includes over 30,000 species of beetle worldwide. This family includes scarabs, dung beetles, rhinoceros beetles, stag beetles, Hercules beetles, Goliath beetles and june bugs. Scarabaeidae species have diverse relationships with humans. Some are agricultural pests of a devastating nature, doing millions of dollars in damage. Others are more useful, and some carrion-eating scarabs are among the many insect species used in forensic entomology and taxidermy to clean corpses. The most famous beetle-human relationship is that of Scarabaeus sacer, the sacred beetle of Khepri, an Egyptian solar deity and aspect of Ra.
While not worshiped as divine, the relationship between beetles and humans in Japan is of the friendly variety. Many large beetle species call Japan home, the most iconic being the Japanese rhinoceros beetle (Allomyrina dichotoma) or Kabutomushi. “Mushi” is Japanese for bug, and “kabuto” for helmet. Its name refers the traditionally ornate samurai helmet, which resembles the chitin armor of the rhinoceros beetle. Japanese children buy or catch these beetles for pets. A good beetle can go for about 500 to 1000 yen (around five or ten bucks in US currency) in a department store. While collecting and raising the beetles is a popular past time, their primary use is for battling.
Rhinoceros beetles show an extreme sexual dimorphism,meaning that the males and females of the species are physically distinct. The female beetles are small and lack horns. The males grow much larger, and have a large, forked horn they use during mating season. The purpose of this horn is to lift another male off the ground and throw them into the air, at which point they will fall to the ground, far out of the way, and the winning male can proceed to mate with the female. At some point in history, an enterprising ancient entomologist realized that these beetles could be manipulated to fight on command. Two male beetles are placed on a log, and a small noisemaker is used to duplicate the mating call of a female. In response to this sound, the two males will begin fighting in hopes of securing access to the hypothetical female.
Unlike other bloodsports, beetle fights rarely end in injury. The loser is knocked off the log or platform, but this is normal for beetles in the wild. Beetles are built to survive these mating battles and live to try again. Unlike dogs and roosters, the beetles can’t be abused and whipped into a murderous frenzy before the battle, and won’t naturally fight to the death. Pokemon battles are designed to resemble beetle fights in that they always thematically end amicably. A losing Pokemon can be restored with a quick rest and be ready for the next battle. There is no direct cruelty involved, and it is closer to a contest of strength than a violent conflict, despite the flamethrowers, thunderbolts, acid and seismic tosses. While cockfighting and dogfighting are both present in Japanese culture (as they are in virtually every culture), there are cultural signals tying Pokemon battles to beetle fights, and therefore to a lack of implied cruelty, that are often missed by Western audiences.
It may come as a surprise to those in the West that beetle collecting and fighting could be such a celebrated and popular past time for Japanese children of all ages and genders. It is commonly understood in many Western countries that insects are “gross” and not as capable of invoking empathy as pets such as cats, dogs or even rats. There is also, traditionally in the West, a gendered expectation involved. Boys are “supposed” to enjoy and play with gross things while a girl who likes insects would be unfairly ostracized. Some scientists even argue that a fear of bugs and spiders is a product of evolution. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that an innate fear of venomous animals, including insects and spiders, would have helped our ancestors survive in the wild and therefore arachnophobia is a genetic condition. The problem with this view, however, is that fear of these animals is not culturally universal, nor do any particularly deadly spiders or insects live in the regions frequented by our ape ancestors. Rates of arachnophobia and entomophobia vary wildly depending on the geographical location. In countries where a fear of spiders is accepted or expected, up to 6 percent of the population can suffer from severe arachnophobia.
The truth is that specific fears are not genetic, but rather it is the potential to learn and retain fear in general that comes from our DNA. Our primate brain is programmed to quickly learn what our friends and family are afraid of when we are young, and replicate that same fear. If someone you trust is afraid of something, it is generally safe to assume you should be afraid of it to (at least according to our brains). We can see this in studies of our close relatives, as chimps raised in captivity show no fear of spiders or snakes unless they first see another chimp react in fear to these creatures. Evolutionary psychology is, by and large, overly reductive in its view of human behavior and instinct. Rather than a single genetic marker that says “FEAR THIS” or “THIS DISGUSTS YOU” the truth is that genetics and culture work together to create influences on a person. This is how two cultures can, over many generations of individuals, influence their respective populations to either love or despise the same species.
While Pokemon owes its perspective on both bug-types and inter-species conflict in general to beetle fighting, beetle fighting itself owes something to an older form of insect collecting and battling. Chinese cricket-fighting dates back at least 1000 years ago, rising to prominence during the Tang Dynasty. One of the earliest books written on the subject was written in the 13th century by Jia Sidao, chancellor of the Song dynasty. Sidao was infamous for his obsession with crickets and concubines, and it was said that the Mongols were able to take the city of Xiangyang so easily because Sidao was occupied with training his crickets. This story was meant to be an example of the feudal decadence that had corrupted the court, but also humanize the controversial chancellor. He was corrupt and incompetent (and later assassinated by his own court), but he was a man who loved crickets. Dammit, anyone who loved crickets can’t be that bad! His ultimate downfall was that he was too human, that he indulged an otherwise noble pursuit TOO much and let it become debased, and therefore deserved a bit of sympathy.
Just as in cock-fighting, cricket-fighting was a spiritually and politically symbolic act that became “debased” by gambling and entertainment later on, but unlike cockfighting, the combat is not mortal. Male crickets of the Velarifictorus micado species, like beetles, are territorial but do not fight to the death. Their behavior during fights was a symbol for how a decent man of ancient China should behave. Jia Sidao’s book describes, in exhaustive detail, the Five Virtues that are shared by all crickets and all men as follows:
- The 1st Virtue: When it is time to sing, he will sing. This is trustworthiness (xin).
- The 2nd Virtue: On meeting an enemy, he will not hesitate to fight. This is courage (yong).
- The 3rd Virtue: Even when seriously wounded, he will not surrender. This is loyalty (zhong).
- The 4th Virtue: When defeated, he will not sing. He knows shame.
- The 5th Virtue: When he becomes cold, he will return to his home. He is wise and recognizes the facts of the situation.
Looking at the specific words used, we can learn what Sidao and other cricket writers wanted to convey not only to cricket trainers, but to the common man. “Zhong” is not just any loyalty, but the specific loyalty that comes from one being willing to lay down their own life for duty and their emperor. “Yong” is specifically the courage and readiness to sacrifice one’s own life and comfort, and to do so eagerly. The 5th virtue is interesting, as it clarifies the whole “lay down your life” part. Crickets are not supposed to stop fighting when wounded, but only if they still have a chance. If its cold, you go inside, and if you’ve lost, you know you’ve lost. Feel shame at your loss, but recognize that it has happened. Better to know when you’re defeated and live to learn better than to die a failure and never be anything else, but at the same time that pragmatism will never be an excuse for failure. Crickets are expected to do their best of their masters, both in terms of raw fighting ability but also in terms of knowing their place, recognizing failure, and trusting their master. If a humble insect can be so worthy of praise, how can any citizen of the empire do less? No matter how strong and fierce a cricket is, if it can not judge a situation or understand shame it will never be a champion. The most important aspects of cricket fighting are the intangible concepts of loyalty, understanding, courage and obedience that only come about from partnership with its human trainer.
In addition to the five virtues, there are three races, four body colors, 72 different personalities, and countless variations on jaws, necks, antennae and other body parts to consider. These attributes can be judged and quantified by examining a cricket, and improved by training them. While unintentional, this ends up resembling the common statistics found in all role playing games, including Pokemon. Perhaps a similar list of Pokemon virtues would look like this:
- The 1st Virtue: When striking an enemy, she will use all of her force. This is respect (attack).
- The 2nd Virtue: When the enemy attacks, no matter how fearsome it may appear, she will stand and face it. This is responsibility (defense).
- The 3rd Virtue: When calling on the elements, she will find strength in those according to her type. This is mindfulness (sp. attack).
- The 4th Virtue: When confronted by what is special and unknown, she will remain steadfast and true to herself. This is conviction (sp. defense).
- The 5th Virtue: When she has made a choice, she will trust herself and follow through immediately. This is honesty (speed).
While not the sport it once was, vast cricket markets still exist today. Crickets born in the wild are generally considered better fighters than those born in captivity, and so every autumn thousands of people go out into the wilds collecting them. The best cricket trainers must travel around the Chinese countryside to properly obtain and judge different crickets. As demand for crickets increases, the species may even go extinct in some communities, causing the markets and festivals to move until the species has recovered. There are two major cricket tournaments, the National Cricket Fighting Championship in Beijing and the Yu Sheng Cup in Luhua, but throughout the year there are constant smaller bouts, often in shady dives and gambling dens.
With cricket fighting’s ties both to the aristocracy and the criminal communities, it was an obvious target during the Cultural Revolution. Decried as bourgeois, decadent and culturally backward, it was banned by the Communist government for much of the 20th century. Cricket fighting became the focus of a mild moral panic. It was encouraging children to gamble, to identify with out-dated and taboo ideals, and encouraged even worse illegal activities later in life. Many of the charges leveled against cricket fighting by communist moral crusaders would mirror those levied against Pokemon by their Western, Christian equivalents decades later. Many of us will remember being told of how Pokemon trading cards were encouraging gambling in public schools, or even the absurd charges of Pokemon promoting Satanism and a fascination with the occult.
Crickets found an interesting combination of champions in the 21st century. Gamblers, of course, wanted to continue their lucrative sport in a semi-legal fashion. Gambling is still outlawed in China, but cricket matches are available and if bets happen to take place, the owners can’t be blamed. Academics wanted to bring cricket-fighting back to its original roots, as a celebration of traditional Chinese culture and a way to encourage the younger generation to take pride in their history. Reading translations among contemporary Chinese cricket enthusiasts and sociologists shows a vigorous debate, challenging the previous condemnations of the practice. Is cricket fighting vile or holy? Bourgeois or proletarian? A celebration of vital tradition or a retreat into the past? It all depends on who you ask, and what they wish to use the crickets to symbolize.
In the fictional Pokemon universe, Pokemon battles are intrinsically tied to these dichotomies as well. The player receives money only from battling other trainers and winning their purse. Kanto’s economy is driven by Pokemon battles. Despite the fact that the people of Kanto are constantly gambling on matches, they are constantly discussing the cultural importance of battles. Training and understanding Pokemon replaces school as the primary way for children to learn to socialize. Children are expected to take lessons from their Pokemon in terms of how to be productive citizens of the region. It’s right there in the theme song, the Pokemon teach the trainer even as the trainer teaches them. Yet Pokemon are also the tools of the greatest forces of societal evil in the games. Through Pokemon, evil organizations like Team Rocket weaponize elements, emotions, traditions, and abstract concepts in order to unite their nation in denouncing the very concepts of “truth” and “love” that children are expected to learn through Pokemon training.
Ash may not have ever gone to a real school and may not know long division, but he knows the importance of honesty, how to be a good friend and partner, and that Fighting types are weak to Psychic types. Isn’t that what we truly want every child to learn?