How Satoshi Tajiri’s autism helped create Pokemon

Satoshi Tajiri

Satoshi has gone on record saying that he wanted the games to give children the same joy as he had during his bug collecting.  People with autism tend to take up collecting as a hobby, so Satoshi gave them and everyone else a gift that only he could create: a whole new thing to collect. 

By Colin Eldred-Cohen

Calling Pokemon a world-wide phenomenon would be a gross understatement.  The franchise has redefined a generation through its hordes of games, TV seasons, manga adaptations, toys, cards, and so much more.  But as Pokemon fans prepare for the release of Pokemon Sun/Moon or despair over Ash losing yet another Pokemon League tournament, it’s easy to forget how it all got started.  Before Pokemon Go, the Johto region, Master Balls, and even Pikachu, there was a man named Satoshi Tajiri.  In honor of Pokemon’s 20th Anniversary, I think it’s only right to look at the man who started it all.

Born in Tokyo in 1965, the young Satoshi had various obsessions — collecting bugs as a kid and arcade games as a teenager.  The latter captured so much of his time and attention that he actually cut classes and wound up flunking high school.  His parents were concerned; they actually didn’t understand his obsession with games and thought he was a delinquent throwing his life away.  He eventually took make-up classes and got his high school diploma, but he only did a two year stint at the Tokyo National College of Technology studying computer science and electronics.

If you think that he put a cork in his video game obsession during his studies, think again.  When he was seventeen, he started writing and editing a fan magazine that focused on the arcade game scene called Game Freak.  Sound familiar to any fans?  That’s because Game Freak is one of the companies that makes the Pokemon games, their logo and name appearing every time you start the game up.  How did it jump from fan magazine to game juggernaut?

Enter Ken Sugimori, the man who would later to go illustrate the original 151 Pokemon (for the uninitiated, the franchise began with 151 unique monsters players would try to catch; there are currently 721 with more to come).  He came across the magazine in a shop, liked it, and joined the team as the illustrator.  After Game Freak grew and got several more contributors, Ken and Satoshi decided that they were disappointed with the current batch of video games and decided to make their own.  Thus, after studying the coding language they would need to go forward, Game Freak went from magazine to game company in 1989.

Shortly after, he pitched the idea of Pokemon to Nintendo, inspired by the possibilities of the Game Boy’s connectivity possibilities (the Game Boy was Nintendo’s handheld console in the 90s with the revolutionary ability to have players link their Game Boys together and play against one another).  Since Satoshi had some game credits under his belt at this point, Nintendo went along with the idea (even if they didn’t completely understand it).  While developing the game, Satoshi was mentored and guided along the process by Shigeru Miyamoto himself, the pioneer behind such titles as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and so much more.

Despite this, the process of developing the first Pokemon games for the Game Boy (Pokemon Red and Green/Blue) was anything but smooth.  The six year effort to make the games nearly bankrupted Game Freak and five employees quit because of it.  Satoshi even foregoed a salary, instead relying on support from his father.  Given how popular Pokemon is nowadays, you’d think that the release resulted in a giant explosion of fanfare, but the media outlets didn’t give it a lot of press.  The reason?  Get this… they thought that the Game Boy was a dead console.

Oh, hindsight is a beautiful thing.

Not only did Pokemon become a hit, but actually saved Nintendo’s dipping sales.  The franchise has gone on to become one of Nintendo’s greats, lasting through six generations of handheld consoles and will probably last through six more.

But I’m here to talk about Satoshi because this is one interesting guy.  He relished his time developing the game and looked up to Shigeru Miyamoto.  Case in point, in the original Japanese Pokemon anime, the main character we know as Ash is named Satoshi and his rival (Gary) is named Shigeru.  It’s kinda sweet when you think about it.

But here’s the real kicker, the thing most people don’t know about him.  Satoshi Tajiri is a high-functioning autistic.  Yes, the creator of Pokemon is on the spectrum.

It actually fits when you look at it.  People with autism tend to have fixations and specializations and you can see them in his past actions.  When he was collecting and studying insects in his youth, he devoted so much of his free time to it that his friends called him “Dr. Bug.”  I wouldn’t be surprised if that planted an idea in his head that would eventually become Professor Oak, the mentor figure in Pokemon Red and Green/Blue and later Pokemon Yellow.  Also, that obsession with gaming in his teens?  That didn’t just mean following the latest games that came out, he actually took apart and put together his own gaming systems to see how they worked.  That level of intense dedication goes well beyond being an average fan.

That brings us to the poetic genius behind Pokemon.  Satoshi has gone on record saying that he wanted the games to give children the same joy as he had during his bug collecting.  People with autism tend to take up collecting as a hobby, so Satoshi gave them and everyone else a gift that only he could create: a whole new thing to collect.  As a guy on the spectrum, I’ve been trying to collect all of the Pokemon since the fifth grade when I could recite and describe all 151.  Nowadays, I could probably do… let’s say 85% of them.

So if you’re ever getting ragged on for not getting as good grades as your classmates or activities that other people find a waste of time, just remember that a bug collector who had to redo high school and had autism went on to change the world.

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Colin_headshots

Colin Eldred-Cohen is a creative writer and story teller. He was born in San Diego and graduated from the San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), where he discovered his talents for performing, singing and Irish dance.  He graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in film.

He is currently living in San Jose where he is writing regularly for fishandcherries.com and putting his writing talents to use working on his first novel (that he hopes will be a best seller, made into an Oscar-winning movie and a line of happy meal toys.)

Colin is on the Autism spectrum, and has channeled his creative and active mind to become a talented writer and story teller.  He is an active member of the Autistic Creatives Collective. His first children’s book, The Fire Truck Who Got Lost will be released in September.

21 Comments

  • Satoshi Tajiri is not autistic. This idea was spread and misattributed when a person did research online, citing a myspace post as their source for evidence he was autistic in their book. No interviews with Satoshi in Japanese mention that he is, and his interviews show that he is a pretty normal functioning adult. He may just have Aspergers at worse but, as mentioned, no one has asked. As, unfortunately, Japanese society tends to shun people who have any sort of mental disability, I would say it’s a stretch.

    • Actually, Aspergers IS autism. It’s an even higher functioning type of autism and the reason it is commonly not referred as autism is so doctors wouldn’t confuse it with high functioning autism. And autism is a spectrum so that means that it is different for everyone and I am autistic too, so I can see that he most likely is because he acts a lot like myself.

      • Aspergers is NOT autism actually, learn the history and creation of both terms and their actual meanings and how try they came to be fused together when Autism was turned into a spectrum. Unfortunately many people like to fabricate the facts in order to feel special and similar to highly intelligent people.

        Aspergers (when it existed before 2012) was created as a ‘syndrome’ – all a syndrome is is a set of personality characteristics that often ‘co-exist’ together. It was named so after Nazi collaborator and doctor – Hanz Asperger. Autism is an actual full blown developmental disability (think Rainman), Aspergers was only added to Autism after 1981 because an English doctor – Lorna Wing, tried to include it into the next DSM which would have been available in 1994 (DSM IV), in the effort to change Autism into a ‘spectrum’.

        All CT brain scans show they are very different however, and Aspergers is closer to normality however because it’s not actually a life affecting disability like Autism is, because it is merely a created syndrome, that’s why it reads more like a check list of personality traits.

        Satoshi Tajiri having Asperger-like traits is certainly a lot more compelling than him being a genuine autistic case, however this is likely more so because he has a rare MBTI personality type, everybody on earth has a typology of 16 main archetypes, it’s common for the extremely rare typologies however to be misdiagnosed with certain conditions like these because they do not represent the norm of society, they are the extreme minority. Many videogame industry veterans are often INT* types such as INTPs and INTJs. Out of the types most commonly misdiagnosed are INTPs, ISTPs and INTJs, types which are known for being a bit more socially awkward due to this not being practiced often enough during their life compared to their intense interests and so they have rusty social skills that need to be practiced manually because it’s less of a second nature skill by default.

        The way to be sure is to research your MBTI typology archetype on a site like ‘humanmetrics’ and when you get your letters (from the four dichotomies) research it on ‘PersonalityJunkies’, YouTube and Facebook ect.

  • Everyone who says this isn’t true he may have aspergers but not autism, do some research. Aspergers is a form of autism. Also people with autism are different and have different interests. And sometimes these interests are very different things to just being something like video games. Satoshi’s bug collecting interests just fits in perfectly. Some more proof is that people with autism use already existing things to come up with characters. I’m not saying they are unoriginal, because I mean thinking of Mario battling Darth Vader is what I sometimes imagine. And I have autism. Anyway, if you look at gen 1 Pokémon, they have things that relate to real life things. For example, Pokeballs are based off of those capsule machines and in the manga the trainers sees the Pokémon in the Pokeball like you see the toys in the capsules. And also people with autism like to use their favourite things when making things. Proof of this? Satoshi Tajiri’s favourite Pokémon is Poliwhirl and Red in the original manga has a Poliwhirl even before he gets his Bulbasaur. So yeah

  • I think a lot of people don’t understand that not everyone with autism look/act/function the same way. For instance, Dan Aykroyd has autism, and draws the link between the condition and his creation of the Ghostbusters concept. He is someone who a lot of people would describe as ‘normal functioning’, and be surprised that he is autistic. The problem is, people think ‘autism’ looks like one specific thing, but the reason it’s a spectrum is because there’s tremendous variety. Satoshi Tajiri may well be autistic and function as he does.

    • If it is so ‘varied’, why is there a point of having a condition label like Autism in society?
      The point of the label is to highlight that that person is labelled so because that person is a ‘certain way’.

      Either way, he isn’t autistic, and aspergers is not autistic, all CT scans have already proven that.

      Satoshi likely has a rare MBTI personality type and that’s why people in the west are applying their own culture on him because his archetype personality is not common in western culture.

      • Aspergers is on the spectrum. It is considered HFA. I rely on what real life doctors and psychologists and researchers say rather than the word of Ren, internet doctor, whose research is based on Google search.

      • You are honestly talking nonsense with no basis at all. Asperger’s is a form of Autism. That is not a question. Talk to a doctor, do a Google search, honestly look anywhere. It was included in the spectrum a only few years ago because that’s where it belongs, but unfortunately the medical field isn’t always perfect and sometimes takes time to get things right. Go back 30 years and all forms of Autism were very often misdiagnosed and misunderstood. We’ve come a long way since then.
        Just because you say does not make it so; and trust me, using big words does NOT make you seem smarter. It might not be “the autism” you might stereotypically be thinking of, but it is nonetheless.
        This coming from someone who has been around autism their entire life, with a mother and brother both with Asperger’s (my mother actually being a published author and public speaker on the subject). People like you are the internet’s infection.

  • Aspergers is what is believed to be the most “mild” form of autism!! And because every case that has been documented for autism is so different to the next, there is no solid checklist to go through when diagnosing someone with autism because it’s presented so uniquely in each and every person who has it! I have a special needs unit! And I have 4 learners who have been diagnosed with autism! 3 that can functioning quite well, YET!! Having those usual rituals of secretly or publicly collecting specific objects! Having VERY different rituals and patterns of getting to their seats in the morning, YET they have been diagnosed with autism! I have o e learner in my class who has absolutely NO social cues! No proper usage of language nor understanding it! Making the most unpleasant sounds! Yet she is so amazing in the specialisation of drawing the most uniquely beautiful pictures that you would not expect from her! Yet she only focuses on drawing happiness sunshine, laughing girls etc! So unless you live with them! Work with them! Or even hang with them! Get to know them and what they about! And FYI??? AUTISM IS A SPECTRUM! ACCEPT IT AND MOVE ON PLEASE!!

  • To anyone coming across this article, Game Freak has apparently been on record that Taijiri has neither autism nor Aspergers.

  • (1) I can’t find any sources confirming Tajiri having Autism or Asperger’s. It’s all just articles like this, Quora, or Reddit, with no interview or credible new sources cited. It’s possible that this is true, but I can’t find solid confirmation. If anyone has found such a source, please link it! That’d be awesome.
    (2) To everyone getting heated over Asperger’s status in relation to the Autism Spectrum:
    Asperger’s, while the DSM IV (which was released in 1994 and is no longer current) considered it a separate diagnosis, has always been considered by some physicians to be a form of autism. So, historically, the distinction of whether or not Asperger’s was a form of autism has been kind of “depends who you ask.” HOWEVER the DSM V, aka the more up-to-date manual for diagnosing mental disorders that came out in 2013, has eliminated the separate diagnoses of Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder—Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), and combined them into the umbrella diagnosis Autism Spectrum Disorder. Asperger’s is no longer an accepted separate diagnosis. So the people on here yelling that Asperger’s isn’t autism, you probably thought you were right and a doctor may have even told you this, but Asperger’s is in fact part of The Spectrum; you are misinformed.

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