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Culture Check: Hawaiian Facts and Fiction in Pokemon Sun and Moon

by Daley Wilhelm If the weather outside is frightful, just turn on your 3DS and take a relaxing trip to the Alola region. Or head to a movie theatre and catch a warm wave with Moana. This winter has provided many opportunities for some Hawaiian-themed escapism in two of the most talked about properties of 2016: Pokemon Sun and Moon and Disney’s newest animated hit Moana. Personally, I loved Moana and I’ve logged an embarrassing amount of time in Pokemon Refresh on Pokemon Moon, but they both made me stop to wonder how accurate they are to the culture that inspired them. Moana’s characters are Polynesian and are voiced by Polynesian people, the story centered around legends from Hawaii, Tahiti and Samoa. I feel that it then follows that the movie has a responsibility to be accurate to the people it’s portraying. But Pokemon is different. The latest games are set in Alola, a fictional place based on Hawaii. Nevertheless, the inspiration is clear and used throughout the games, in names, places, and Pokemon.

Names: Hawaiian Translations and Inspirations

For a long time, I thought the Alola region was just called the Aloha region, but despite being one letter off, the inspiration is clear. Aloha means both hello and goodbye colloquially, but literally translates to affection, peace, compassion, and mercy in Hawaiian. Alola, according to Shigeru Ohmori, is meant to allude to a land overflowing with life. Ola is the Hawaiian word for life, but the connection to Aloha is perhaps overwhelming.
Professor Kukui and Captain Kiawe
The first person you meet is the fan favorite, too-cool-to-wear-a-shirt Professor Kukui. Going along with the franchise’s rule that Pokemon Professors have tree-related names, kukui is also a tree. Kukui is the Hawaiian candlenut tree, the national symbol of Hawaii. It’s a flowering tree, in the past it's nuts were burned as a light source. Kukui nut oil is also a natural moisturizer, which might explain Professor Kukui’s glistening abs. Kiawe, the second Akala Island Trial Captain, is just as aptly named as Kukui. Kiawe is a type of wood often used for smoking fish or meat. This is fitting, considering his fire-type Pokemon.
You, the player, are probably not related to the Professor, despite his calling you, “cousin” at every occasion. This is a term Hawaiians use loosely, meaning a buddy or friend. The same is seen with people calling their unrelated elders “auntie” or “uncle.” The familial terms are meant to show a unity that extends beyond bloodlines and reaches to all Hawaiian people.
Rather than fighting in gyms, the player in Sun and Moon is taking the Island Challenge, which is presided over by Island Kahunas. Kahuna is a Hawaiian word often used in pop culture to refer to skilled surfers or “the boss” of something, the Big Kahuna. The word literally translates to “priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession.” The word has some spiritual connotations, but is a fitting name for anyone defined by their professor, such as doctors, craftsmen, and those who battle in Grand Trials within the game.
The Islands
The four islands that make up the Alola region are named after colors in Hawaiian: MeleMele means “yellow,” Akala means “pink,” Ula’Ula means “red,” and Poni means “purple.” These colors match those of the different variations of Oricorio found on each island.

Places: Beyond Beaches

Mount Lanakila and the Hokulani Observatory
Alola is tropical, so why then are there Ice-types of some first generation Pokemon in this new generation? Believe it or not, there is snow somewhere as famously warm and sunny as Hawaii. Mauna Kea is one of Hawaii’s dormant volcanoes and the highest peak in Hawaii. Because of it’s high altitude, there’s a constant dusting of snow on the peak. This real life mountain was probably the inspiration behind the third island’s Mount Lanakila. On it’s slope you can find the familiar Vulpix and Sandshrew have changed to adapt to their frosty conditions and have become Ice-types. The name “Lanakila” causes a bit of controversy if further researched. Lanakila is the Hawaiian name of a man who led protests of the building of the world’s largest telescope on Mauna Kea. Hawaii, surrounded by ocean and with little light pollution, makes for the idea place for observatories, but sometimes those buildings intrude on land that Hawaiians consider sacred. In the games, there is an observatory, just not on Mount Lanakila. The region’s second largest peak on Ula’Ula houses the Hokulani Observatory. Which seems like a much less controversial location.
Haina Desert
Alola conjured images of it’s beaches, the sea breeze, cool ocean water. And yet there’s another seemingly out of place location: Haina Desert. Harsh sunlight in the day, and sandstorms at night, it seems anything but tropical. The Hawaii paradise the region is based on has a matching location: The Ka’u Desert. With all the previous locations in mind, it’s clear the Ula’Ula in Alola is meant to be based on Hawaii’s Big Island, where the Ka’u Desert is located. Rather than a confusing maze, however, the real life desert has a much more treacherous danger. The Ka’u Desert lacks any vegetation due to the acid rain that falls there.
Paniola Ranch
Farms and ranches aren’t very Hawaiian… are they? If you spellcheck Paniola Ranch, where you can drop off Pokemon at the Pokemon Nursery, you’ll find that there’s another, more apt word that helps explain the seemingly American Western setting within the overall tropical aesthetic: paniolo. Paniolo roughly translates to “Hawaiian cowboy.” The islands have a perhaps unexpected, but rich cowboy culture. This dates back to the 1800s when the Hawaiian King Kamehameha the Third invited Mexican-Spanish cowboys, vaquero to teach the Hawaiian people to break horses and wrangle cattle. The word paniolo actually is a corruption of the word español, the language the vaquero spoke.

Pokemon: Hawaiian History in Design

Alolan Marowak
Alolan Marowak was one of the first Alolan forms announced, and quickly became one of my favorites. At last, the tragic Marowak got to have some of the limelight. According to Pokemon Sun’s PokeDex entry, Alolan Marowak is possessed by it’s mother’s regrets, thus giving it a Ghost-typing. It wields a bone lit by ghostly fire, meaning it’s also a Fire-type. It’s bone is based on a traditional Samoan war club, Nifo Oti or what is culturally used today as part of ceremonial dances, a fire knife or Siva Afi. You might recognize dancers twirling flaming wooden or aluminium sticks in the background of any Lua scene in practically any media trying to emulate Hawaii. Traditionally, fire knife dancing was meant to demonstrate a warrior’s prowess and always utilized an actual blade. The fire, however, didn’t come into play until the 1940’s. Fire knife dancing has a heated history of competition and is taken very seriously in Hawaii. Although used to entertain tourists, and anyone who makes it to the top of Wela Volcano in the games, fire knife dancing is a sacred thing in Hawaiian culture and a thoughtful homage in Pokemon.
Alolan Dugtrio
Surprisingly, there is purpose behind Alolan Dugtrio’s luscious, platinum blonde locks that are evidently made of steel. When one thinks of Hawaii, righteous and mondo waves prime for surfing might come to mind. For a significant amount of time, those surfing them were blindingly blonde Australians making a pilgrimage to Waikiki Beach. These towheaded surfers left their mark on history. They’re the reason behind all the stereotypical images of blonde beach party-goers and why the world came to know what surfing was. Surfing has been an ancient Hawaiian art for centuries, brought out of obscurity by Duke Kahanamoku, but made popular by Australians flipping their hair, in search of the choicest wave.
On Hano Beach, you can take up the part time job of chucking Pyukumuku back into the sea where they belong. The Sea Cucumber Pokemon is obviously based on a sea cucumbers, the marine animals that look like… well, cucumbers. They’re long, cylindrical, and lazy. Toxic to begin with, when startled sea cucumbers might eviscerate themselves as a self-defense mechanism. None of these things sound especially cute, but Pyukumuku is a seriously adorable Pokemon. The cute parts of it’s design, such as it’s fluffy bunny tail, might be based on sea slugs, the more appealing of the ocean’s invertebrates. Specifically, Pyukumuku looks as if it was inspired by the “sea bunny,” a sea slug that looks distinctly fluffy and lovable.
Oricorio (Pa’u)
There are four types of Oricorio, the Dancing Pokemon, all modeled after different dance styles. The pink Pa’u style is a Psychic/Flying type with a feather skirt and a crown of flower-like feathers. The Pa’u style Oricorio is not actually based on a Hula dancer, despite popular belief. Pa’u refers to Pa’u riders, women in long skirts riding astride horses, their hems dragging the ground. Pa’u riders are often seen in parades or festivals in Hawaii and were notable in history because the riders rode astride the horses rather than side-saddle.
Comfrey might be the most blatant callback to Hawaiian culture. The Posy Picker Pokemon resembles a living Lei, the traditional Hawaii garland draped on tourists as they exit Hawaiian airports. Lei refers to any string of items meant to be worn. Traditionally they were used to signify rank or royalty, whereas now they’re used to signify love, friendship, or honor to the person they’re presented with. Lei are used in times of transition or change, such as weddings or graduations, or coming to a new place. Lei have different meaning according to their composition. Comfrey is made out of flowers, which strongly resemble Ilima flowers. Ilima, our very first Trail Captain’s namesake, and the official flower of Oahu mean “love”.

Developers Did Their Research

The games dig deep into Hawaiian culture, even some sacred aspects. Z-moves resemble Hula dances, Hawaii’s oral communication of history and religion. Being a Midwestern white girl who has never even been to Hawaii, I can’t speak for Polynesian people in whether or not Pokemon’s use of Hawaiian ideas and history is accurate or non-offensive. I can say, however that when going into writing this, I was ready to point out inaccuracies left and right, and was pleasantly surprised that there wasn’t really any instances of anything being blatantly wrong. When dealing with properties like Pokemon, I think it would have been both difficult and maybe even a mistake to create a carbon copy of Hawaii. Developers get some slack to rely on a few Hawaiian stereotypes in order to communicate the aesthetic to those who have never been there. While scanning Reddit threads, I found that most Hawaiians seem pleased with the attention to detail in topography and dialogue. Hawaiian tourism websites have lauded the game and pointed out similarities to in-game places and the real life Hawaiian wonderland. There’s a taste of authenticity in the game and the malasadas.
Part 2: Moana and Mismatched Traditions coming soon!