Following in the footsteps of the old anime favorite Pokémon,Yo-kai Watch has fallen back on a westernized translation in order to appeal to a wider audience. Both its game and anime give the protagonist, Keita Amano, the westernized name of “Nate Adams”. In addition to character names, many names of the Yokai have been changed to reflect their attributes in a way that English-speakers can understand, in line with Pokémon’s approach to their creatures’ names, but like with Pikachu, there are a few key Yokai who retain their Japanese names.
To an anime audience familiar with Japanese architecture and tropes, Yo-kai Watch is pretty blatantly set in a standard Japanese city; to an ordinary kid seeing this place for the first time, it comes off looking more like a standard city. When the English dub doesn’t clarify what country it takes place in, the world of Yo-kai Watch finds itself in an odd limbo between Japan and wherever.
It’s possible to write-off the translation as unfaithful and needlessly pandering, but at the same time, it’s genuinely fun to watch because of its universal appeal. The anime has references to Japanese pop culture like Inazuma Eleven, but it doesn't shy from utilizing American pop culture as well. San Francisco’s Alcatraz prison is the setting for one of its Manjimutt segments, and there’s also a popular clip of the Japanese Yokai Whisper and Jibanyan becoming “Will Smithsper” and “Leonardo Dicaprinyan” due to the influence of a Yokai that makes people handsome. The dub of that episode hasn’t yet been broadcast at the time of this publication, but it’s definitely something that American audiences won’t have any trouble getting a laugh out of. *
As Yo-kai Watch’s western popularity continues to rise, it will be interesting to see what sort of influence it will have on kids in regard to Japanese culture. With children’s media there remains a gray area between entertainment and cultivating an informed audience. Cartoons like Adventure Time strive to fit complex themes within the shows whimsical world to create messages that can be understood by everyone inside its wide demographic. By maintaining the Japanese names of key Yokai like Baku, Yokai Watch could be doing something similar in regard to Japanese culture. Viewers and players are given the option to delve deeper into the mythology that drives the franchise, and it could lead to children fostering an interest in mythos beyond the Greek and Roman myths that pervade western culture. While it’s unfortunate that there aren’t as many verbal references to Japan as there could be, the sprinkling of Japanese legends and terminology might be enough for children to build off. After all, the first google result for the word “yokai” directs to several resources on Japanese Yokai before Yo-kai Watch results start popping up. As for the people who aren’t interested in mythology, they can still sit back and enjoy Yo-kai Watch for its core values of fun and discovery, and also buy a lot of merchandise.
*The dub of that episode actually premiered today, and it’s assuredly hilarious.