As Pokémon‘s popularity streaked ever higher in the late ’90s, bringing over the Pokémon anime to the US seemed like an obvious choice. Notorious producers at the time, 4Kids Entertainment, however, were known for erasing every trace of Japanese language and sometimes culture from the series that they localized. Here’s how Pokémon’s Japanese creators found their own solution to that problem.
When the Pokémon anime first came to American shores, 4Kids had the rights to dub and release it, which remained true until 2005. Especially early on, the 4Kids localization staff would make changes to the episodes, painting over signs with Japanese text on them or changing dialog to refer to Japanese foods and cultural items by names that would be more familiar to American children. This led to some often ridiculous changes, such as the infamous scenes of Brock eating or preparing rice balls while calling them “jelly donuts,” and drew the ire of older fans who didn’t appreciate the dumbing down of what was already a very child-friendly show.
Pokémon’s creators decided back at the start of the Orange Islands arc to create the series to be more localization-friendly, and began to use an invented Pokémon language for background signs. These things wouldn’t need to be translated or changed as a result, and would allow for the dubbing and localization process to move much faster than it had been. The language seen in the Orange Islands arc didn’t last long, and no one has ever been able to determine if it was actually possible to translate it. While this version was short-lived, the idea itself stuck around, especially as Pokémon began to get localized into many different languages around the world.
Pokémon’s Cipher Languages
Starting in the Black and White era of Pokémon’s anime, a new invented language began to appear on signs in the background. It made a lot of sense, since Black and White is set in the Unova region, a land based on the US (and NYC in particular), and would logically use a different language than the Japan-inspired regions that had come before. Diligent fans realized this time, however, that the language was actually a simple substitution cipher, replacing each letter of the alphabet with a new unique character. Using certain signs, it was possible to figure out the entire cipher, and fans began to spot Easter eggs hidden in these details. While the characters used for Pokémon’s invented languages have changed over time, they remained in use throughout XY(Z) and Sun and Moon, and the language even made the leap over to the games, minimizing the localization work needed there, too.
Fans of Pokémon with sharp eyes have no doubt spotted the strange characters on signs and in books, but for someone unfamiliar with Japanese, it might not be easy to tell that these are original to Pokémon. Using these cipher languages for both translation work and to hide Easter eggs was a stroke of brilliance for the anime, adding a new layer of fun for the series’ most dedicated fans.
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