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Popular Japanese Religious References Within Pokémon's Ecruteak City

Modern forms of entertainment, such as television and video games, are usually written off by the average person as just that: entertainment. Very few see it as anything beyond anything than that. To one who looks past this simple surface, however, entertainment can be many things. One of these most unexpected things is an entry point into the richness of culture both past and present. While some perspectives may see entertainment as inane and shallow, it is difficult to deny that it can also be is a representation of a culture no matter how positive or negative the representation is.

One of the most prominent examples of this that exists in Japan is the franchise that is a sensation the world over. Pokémon, as popular as it is, comes off as something for children to spend their time and waste their parent's money with to those who don't care for it. A closer look at the franchise, however, can reveal much more. Japanese culture, history, and other references are everywhere. A more subtle reference (at least to a Western perspective) to Japanese culture would be that of religion. From architecture to the Pokemon themselves, Japanese religious references are hidden in the least expected of places of the franchise. These references show some of the most significant religious features of Japan today. Because these references show up in popular culture, they show what is important to the people as a whole.

While there are religious references in almost every aspect of the Pokémon franchise, there is one city in particular that holds the strongest religious connection. Ecruteak City is a place known for its distinct relationship between the past and the present, and is thus a place that clearly stands out in the Pokémon world.

This essay will analyze significant landmarks, people, and Pokemon of Ecruteak City and how they connect to Japanese religion today among the common people. To begin, an introduction to Ecruteak City will be given.  The first part of the analysis will focus on Ecruteak Gym's layout, members, and gym leader. The second analysis will be of the Bell Tower and the Burned Tower, Ecruteak's two most important historical landmarks. The last part of the analysis will focus on the legend surrounding these two towers and the Pokémon that make up the legend.

Ecruteak City is a location of the Johto region. It is most well known as the setting of Pokémon Gold Version and Pokémon Silver Version and their remakes, Pokémon HeartGold Version and Pokémon SoulSilver Version. Ecruteak is one of the largest cities of the Johto region. This region within the Pokémon universe is based off of Japan's Kansai (関西) region, one of the two major regions of the main island of Japan, Honshu. Ecruteak City itself is a "Pokémon version" of Kyoto. Kyoto was the capital of Japan before Tokyo became the capital. Even today, Kyoto is the center of Japan's culture, due to the fact that it is the location of many of Japan's greatest historical sites. Traditional Japanese architecture and culture are still commonplace in both Ecruteak City and Kyoto, defining both as unique worlds in the present time. Both Kyoto and Ecruteak stand out in their respective worlds for their unique connection to both the past and the present.

In any visit to Ecruteak City, the first destination of most would be none other than the Ecruteak Gym. To say that this establishment stands out would be an understatement, as this is one of the few distinctly modern buildings in the entire city. It is located in the southwestern-most building of the city and is lead by a man named Morty. A look inside will reveal an even more unusual interior. A few steps in will reveal that the floor seemingly disappears into a black hole in Generation II or a shroud of mist in Generation IV. If the challenger steps off of the path, s/he falls into a pit and mysteriously reappears at the entrance to the gym. The challenger must rely on his/her inner ability to trust both him/herself and the members the gym to make it to the gym leader, Morty. Due to the eerie nature of this setting, the members of this gym all use ghost-type Pokémon.

Ecruteak City is full of people connected to Japanese religion. The first of these religious connections to discuss is the Mediums that are a part of the Ecruteak Gym. A more proper title for this trainer class would be the original Japanese name for them, itako (イタコ). The in-game itako, overall, kept the same appearance in all versions of the games taking place in Johto. They are elderly women who wear white kimono and underclothing in darker colors. The Generation II itako held prayer beads and had small spirits floating around them. However, due to a Nintendo policy that was in effect of Pokémon Gold and Silver Version's release, which enforced a strict rule that there should be no religious references in any game, the prayer beads were edited out in all non-Japanese editions of the games. Generation IV itako, instead of holding prayer beads and being accompanied by ghosts, hold a candle in each hand. This signifies the fact that the itako light the way for the gym's challengers to continue forward.

These mediums, as their Japanese name connects to, are references to the blind female shamans of folk religious belief of the northern Honshu island of Japan. The itako become who they are because they are blind and have no other use in society. While they are still young (almost always before puberty) a blind girl will be taken to an older, already established itako for training. An itako-in-training most often lives with her teacher to train. Training can take anywhere between two and five years. It is designed to push the student to her limits. As she comes closer and closer to the end of her training, the tasks she must do get more and more difficult. The most excruciating of her training is known as gyoo. Examples of gyoo include pouring hundreds of buckets of ice cold water over her shoulders and walking from the early hours of the morning to a local shrine, all while on a severe lack of sleep. The girls who survive this extreme challenge come out of it with great supernatural power. With her newfound power, the itako is expected to be able to fall into a trance and use her body as a tool for which kami and ghosts can speak. Most itako today make their living today by contacting the spirits of the dead and, while in a trance, telling their family members how they are doing and requesting things of the living family so that the soul may rest in peace.

The second of the Ecruteak gym's members only existed within the gym in Generation II, being replaced with more itako in Generation IV. Why this was changed is unknown. These members were known as sages. In the Japanese edition, they were called ぼうず (boozu), which translates to monk, a much more appropriate title for them. Their name was probably changed due to Nintendo's religion policy that was mentioned with the discussion of the itako (note that this policy was not in affect with the release of Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver Versions, so this does not explain later changes). Their art was also changed in Generation II due to this policy. Their hands are in a prayer position in the Japanese edition, but their arms are crossed in all other editions. In both Generation II and IV, they wear dark colored robes and have shaved heads. Their clothing and shaved heads connects to that of a Buddhist monk, leading to the conclusion that they are supposed to be Japanese Buddhist monks.  

Morty himself, as the leader of these itako and monks, also shows strong supernatural and religious power himself. While he is dressed in modern and not traditional clothing, he proudly bears the title of "The Mystic Seer of the Future" in the English language edition of the games and "clairvoyant ascetic" (千里眼を持つ修験者) in the Japanese edition.  Within his Japanese title is the key word here: ascetic. Morty isn't an ascetic by exact definition by any means, however, he does show a distinct resemblance to them. His strongest connections to ascetics are his clairvoyance and his mastery over ghost Pokémon. Though powers differ between different kinds of ascetics, ascetics are known for their powers of clairvoyance and ability to communicate with spirits.  Ghost Pokémon are known for their difficult nature with humans. Many people cannot form relationships with ghost types because these Pokemon prefer to play practical jokes and other mischievous deeds, frustrating and scaring humans away. It takes a very special, specific type of person to be able to win their trust. Morty can do exactly this with ease, causing him to be believed to have a supernatural power very similar to that of ascetics. He and the members of his gym have the power to guide people through a world of spirits, making them true connections to the real life Buddhist monks, itako, and ascetics they are modeled off of.

While an interest in spirits and the supernatural on the decline in the common Japanese people today, the fact that they still exist shows great meaning for their place in Japanese culture. People can still be wowed by the trance of a mountain ascetic. They can still go to itako for fortune telling and communication with their deceased family members. While the modern world is making its way in, the history behind these supernatural figures is strong.    This goes to show that it is no surprise that the itako, ascetics, and Buddhist monks could appear in a popular children's franchise.

If the Ecruteak Gym is the first destination of most travelers today, then the next greatest landmark to visit is the Suzu no Tou (スズのとう). This title can be translated into English as either "Tin Tower" or "Bell Tower," and it has been done just that on different occasions. In Generation II, the name the tower was referred to was Tin Tower, and in Generation VI onward, the tower is called Bell Tower. This magnificent pagoda was built seven hundred years before the time span of the video games with the purpose of fostering friendship and hope between Pokémon and humans. As the tower of the east, it is said to awaken Pokémon. It is ten stories in height and guarded by several sages and monks. It is considered of a high sanctity to the people of Johto, thus, only the privileged may enter it.  

To the west is another tower that stands out, but for a very different reason than the Bell Tower. Like the Bell Tower, this tower was built seven hundred years before the main Pokémon storyline, was ten stories high and was built to foster friendship and hope between Pokémon and humans. As the tower of the west, it is said that this tower put Pokémon to rest. However, one hundred and fifty years ago, the tower burned down after being struck by lightning. As such, this tower is known by the name of yaketa tou (やけたとう), which translates into English as "Burned Tower." Very rarely, if at all, is the tower any longer referred to by its original name, Kane no Tou (かねのとう). A possible translation of kane is "metal," thus leading the English versions of the video games to use the title "Brass Tower" as the original name of this tower. While no effort was ever put into the rebuilding of the tower, many of Ecruteak City's residents say that plans to rebuild the tower are underway. Only two floors remain, and both of them are full of charred rubble that has remained untouched by human hands since the fire.

Both the Bell Tower and the Burned Tower share a strong connection to two of Kyoto's most well-known historical landmarks, the Buddhist temples known as Ginkaku-ji and the Kinkaku-ji. The first of these to be discussed within this paper is the source of inspiration for the Burned Tower, Kinkaku-ji.  Kinkaku-ji is usually translated and referred to in English as the "Temple of the Golden Pavilion" and is most well known for being covered entirely in a thick layer of gold known as gold leaf, which shines brilliantly in just the right amount of sunlight.  Kinkaku-ji is a temple of the Rinzai Sect of Zen Buddhism. It was originally built under the request of the third Muromachi shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397. Over a ten year period, multiple buildings were built and it became Yoshimitsu's private retirement retreat, Kitayama-dono (Kitayama Palace). Upon his death in 1408, Kitayama-dono became Kinkaku-ji as we know it today. Kinkaku-ji has been damaged on more than one occasion in history, but the most noteworthy case was in 1950, as it is the inspiration behind the Burned Tower's destruction. The only building of the site left standing, the Kinkaku, was completely destroyed in a fire caused by a youth protesting the commercialization of Buddhism. However, unlike the Burned Tower, the Kinkaku was reconstructed and completed in October 1955.
As stated in the last paragraph, the Bell Tower's origins begin with Ginkaku-ji, translated into English as "Temple of the Silver Pavilion." It, similar to Kinkaku-ji, was supposed to be covered in silver leaf, however, this simply never happened. In building this site, the eighth Muromachi shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (r 1449-74) was very strongly inspired by Kinkaku-ji. The two temples share very similar histories. Building of the Ginkaku-ji began in 1465, and was completed in 1483. Yoshimasa died in 1490.  Ginkaku-ji was converted into a temple as written in his last wishes. Temple records claim that 12 buildings once made up this complex, however, all but two buildings have survived to modern times, the Ginkaku and the Togudo.

The Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji are still very important to the Japanese people even today. They have even been given the title of 'World Heritage Sites' in modern times. Almost anyone visiting the Kansai region, Japanese or not, has to come to this site to experience what Japan was like when Kyoto was the capital, proving this religious site's popularity in modern culture and how it could become a reference for a video game.

The next topic to be discussed is the legend surrounding the Burned Tower, the Bell Tower, and the legendary Pokémon of Ecruteak City. Within the Pokémon world, the amount of truth behind the legend as a whole is questionable at best. What is clear is that the inhabitants of Ecruteak City take this entire story as fact. The oral tradition that has been passed down for the past one hundred fifty years is told like this:
Two towers... Two Pokémon... But when one burned down, both Pokémon flew away, never to return.
To elaborate upon this short telling of the legend, seven hundred years ago, two towers were built called the Bell Tower and the Brass Tower with the purpose of helping to create deeper relationships between Pokémon and humans. These towers came to be sacred because two extremely rare, legendary Pokémon called these towers their homes. Ho-Oh lived atop the Bell Tower and Lugia made its home at the Brass Tower. Humans were free to come and go as they pleased, causing the entire city to become well acquainted with these two Pokémon. However, one hundred fifty years ago, the Brass Tower was struck by lightning and set fire because of it. Rain almost immediately quenched the fire, but the tower burnt to the ground. Lugia immediately flew off and made a new home for itself within the Whirl Islands, an area of Johto to the southwest of Ecruteak. Ho-Oh, however, saw that three Pokémon had perished in the fire. It flew down from the clouds to resurrect the three Pokémon. As a permanent reminder of the tragedy that had happened, Ho-Oh imbued these Pokémon with powers related to the fire: Raikou with the lightning that struck the tower, Entei with the fire that burned the tower, and Suicune with the rain that put out the fire. Ho-Oh has not been seen by human eyes since. It is believed that Ho-Oh now resides in the heavens and Lugia lives within the deepest depths of the ocean, waiting for the day when a human with a pure enough heart and a distinct ability to touch the souls of Pokémon will appear.  

Raikou, Entei, and Suicune came to be known as the legendary beasts. Upon their resurrection, those who saw them were struck with terror. Realizing their immense power, the three sealed themselves within the Burned Tower. They turned themselves into stone statues and fell into a deep sleep. Because of this, Raikou, Entei, and Suicune came to be known as the guardians of Ecruteak. They, like Ho-Oh and Lugia, are waiting for the day that a human with a pure heart will appear. Sure enough, this part of the legend is revealed as true when the protagonist of the video games arrives in the Burned Tower. Once walking upon them, the legendary beasts awake from their sleep. Immediately, they escape the tower and begin to traverse the entirety of Johto, waiting for the protagonist to find them. As this suggests, the player is the pure heart that these five legendary Pokémon of Ecruteak have been looking for.

While there are five Pokémon mentioned in the legend of the Burned Tower and the Bell Tower, this essay will only focus on three of them, the legendary beasts. The origins of the legendary beasts are the shisa. Other names for the shisa include koma-inu, guardian lion, haetae, and chinthe. The shisa has so many names because it is a creature that has religious significance in a number of countries, including China (its place of origin), Japan, Burma, and the Koreas. The shisa are seen as lions, as can be drawn from many of their names, but on many occasions, they are a distinct mixture of dog and lion features. The shisa are often found outside of buildings as intimidating statues. It is believed that they can protect the building and anyone inside it from evil spirits. It is also within their power to keep good spirits inside the building.

With a simple analysis, the shisa and the legendary beasts don't appear to share many connections to each other. This is because the legendary beasts absolutely cannot sit still, wandering the entirety of Johto. The shisa are distinctly known as guardians who never move from their posts. However, a deeper look into the facts of these two can reveal that the shisa and the legendary beasts certainly have their similarities. It is most important to remember that the legendary beasts did not begin to traverse across Johto until the protagonist enters the legend. They were specifically noted to be stone statues until this moment in time. This is exactly what shisa are: stone statues. The second significant similarity is the roars of both the legendary beasts and the shisa. The shisa are very well known for their roars, as this is the favorite method of frightening away evil spirits. The legendary dogs are also known for their mighty and terrifying Roar attack. A third and final similarity is the shared characteristics of the elements. Some versions of the shisa had connections to certain elements that the legendary beasts possess. For example, the haetae has an ability to eat fire, which is associated with an affinity for water. Suicune shares a strong connection with this idea, as it is known as the legendary beast of water.

The shisa have a strong religious connotation in Okinawa, as they are a part of Okinawa mythology. The religious side of shisa comes from the fact that they are supposed to, specifically, keep away spirits and protect the house. While they are most common by far in Okinawa, they're found all over Japan. They stand as guardians over almost all types of buildings, including many Buddhist temples in Japan. Buddhist temples are almost always guarded by some kind of statue, and the shisa are no exception, strengthening the religious connotations behind them.

However, the shisa are losing their true religious meanings to the world of tourism. Shisa are still everywhere to be found, but in the form of merchandise. Shisa can be found in the form of key chains, charms, and statues. They're to be found in all sizes and colors as souvenirs. It is true that they can still be found all over Japan and especially in Okinawa, but many people don't quite see them for their true meaning any longer. To these people, especially of those of the younger generations, they are nothing more than trinkets that are bought on vacation or the subject of a boring history lecture.

The elements of religion that show up in Japanese pop culture represent some of the most important religious beliefs of the people. A prime example is found in the Pokémon franchise. Ecruteak City, inspired by the real-world Kyoto, has many religious references within it. Three of them include the Ecruteak Gym, the Brass Tower, the Bell Tower, and the legendary beasts. Ecruteak Gym shows connections to Japanese Buddhist monks; itako, or blind shamans; ascetics; and how the Japanese view the spirit world.  The two towers are based off of two of Kyoto's most well known Buddhist temples, Ginkaku-ji and Kinkaku-ji. The legendary beasts origins lie in a mythological creature that is most well known in Okinawa, the shisa. However, the popularity of the itako and other figures of the spirit world is decreasing with each generation and the reason for popularity behind the Ginkaku-ji, Kinkaku-ji, and shisa is slowly altering from a religious to tourist popularity. On a more general scale, most people today often visit temples and shrines not for the religious experience, but for the tourist experience. The fact that charms and other small, cheap gift items are so popular just shows how the actual values of religion aren't as important anymore. The fact that these elements of Japanese religion are placed in a modern video game for children could mean many things. A possibility is that the older people who make these games have hope that the younger generations could look upon franchises such as Pokémon, see the references, and remember what their culture truly was and have an interest in it before it is gone from the popular mind forever. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the older generations want those younger than them to remember what things were once like, and using popular franchises like Pokémon could be just the way to do that. Change is never take well by the older, and examples such as this can been seen as the proof of that.
This was my twelve page term paper for Japanese Religions. I think some people will find it interesting, so I decided to upload it. Feel free to discuss anything that looks incorrect or funny with me.

I don't know what my grade on this was, but I got an A in the class, so it must have been good.


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303Rellymaster Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Wow, I never even knew just how important Ecruteak City really was until I read this report. This was an incredible report, and I had a lot of fun reading it. I also feel a lot more wiser now. :)
KawaiiChan789 Featured By Owner Mar 21, 2012  Student Writer
Pokemon is a treasure trove of Japanese culture. To think that I could write an entire 12 page paper on religion in Ecruteak alone says a lot about how much Japanese religious history is in Pokemon. Once you get past the stereotypes that it is a simple kids game, the complex nature of Pokemon is revealed to be simply amazing. :D While most people insult the Pokemon games nowadays, if you would look, almost everything is a carefully picked out reference to some part of Japanese culture or history. Pokemon could be an amazing way to teach not just children, but everyone, about Japanese culture. (I would love to tap into this potential further someday :)
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