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Pikachu and Nintendo find themselves in the middle of a cultural controversy in Hong Kong.

When the Pokémon Company announced last month that it was holding a “general election,” with the entire pantheon of Pocket Monsters as candidates, it seemed like a playfully tongue-in-cheek way to refer to a popularity poll. Now, though, Pokémon is at the center of an actual social/political controversy in Hong Kong.

On Monday, a group of 20 demonstrators gathered in Chater Garden, in Hong Kong’s Central District. After assembling, they walked the 650 meters (0,4 miles) to the gates of the Japanese consulate, all to deliver a letter protesting a recent decision to change the way series mascot and electric-type Pokémon Pikachu’s name is officially rendered in written Chinese.

In Japanese, Pikachu’s name is written in phonetic katakana. However, since Chinese lacks a purely phonetic script, Chinese characters have to be chosen to approximate the pronunciation of the Pocket Monster’s name. The pronunciation of the same written characters differs between Chinese dialects, so until now Pikachu has had his name written differently in Mandarin-speaking mainland China and traditionally Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong.

Pikachu’s Mandarin name is rendered in the Latin alphabet as Pei Ka Yau, whereas his Cantonese moniker would be Bei Ka Chiu (for the record, Romanizations of Chinese words often fail to intuitively convey how they’re actually pronounced to English-speakers). In an effort to standardize the franchise’s marketing in the region, though, Nintendo has announced that in the future Pikachu will be Pei Ka Yau in both Hong Kong and the mainland.

The protestors claim that the Cantonese reading for the characters in Bei Ka Chiu are closer to the original “Pikachu” pronunciation than that for the characters Pei Ka Yau. To show their displeasure, the demonstrators tore up papers bearing the Pei Ka Yau version of the name.

But there’s more behind the joint protest by the members of groups Civic Passion and Lonely Media than video game localization loyalty. Since the return of Hong Kong to the Chinese government in 1997, many residents feel that the city’s linguistic heritage is being trampled on as Cantonese, the primary language of Hong Kong for generations, is slowly being pushed out by Mandarin, in both professional and educational settings. As such, Nintendo’s planned renaming of Pikachu has struck a raw nerve for those who want not only to catch all the Pokémon, but also hang on to the one language they feel best represents the local culture.

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Source: Hong Kong Free Press via Anime News Network
Top image: Facebook/毒撚媒體LonelyMedia