Part One – On Cultural Difference
Before we begin, I’d like to specify what I mean by “Japanese” video games. Although the term seems obvious enough, there might be some confusion over whether games heavily influenced by Japanese styles or games released by North American or European branch offices of corporations with headquarters in Japan count as “Japanese” video games. Since a debate concerning what is and isn’t “Japanese” according to stylistic conventions could easily become mired in a bog of stereotypes and cultural essentialism, I’d like to clarify that I’m referring to video games produced and developed in Japan.
Between the most recent Wolverine movie, Keanu Reeves’s 47 Ronin, and Katy Perry’s performance as a geisha at the American Music Awards last November, I sometimes feel like I’ve been up to my elbows in arguments over cultural appropriation for the past year or so. Since the related topics of cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism are relevant to a discussion of Japanese culture in Japanese games, I think they’re worth touching upon here at the beginning of the essay. To explain why they’re relevant, let me quote from an essay posted on Tumblr about the portrayal of imperial colonialism in Final Fantasy XIV, which introduces itself with the following caveat:
I remain open on whether Japanese gamers are less likely to find these implications to be controversial/confusing and [Square Enix] is only by coincidence hitting a possible nerve with Western audiences. I don’t think this is a question Westerners like me should attempt to answer. Japanese attitudes towards both culture and religion are so different from Western attitudes that they can hardly be recognized as the same issues. It may be a moot point for [Square Enix]’s intended (i.e. Japanese) audience; the only thing that we can really examine is the impact hitting our own, aka English-speaking, neck of fandom.
In other words, do Japanese and Western audiences pick up on the same types of themes? Will they have the same emotional and intellectual responses to these themes? Will they come to the same hermeneutic conclusions regarding these themes? Furthermore, are we, as English-speaking Americans, unwittingly acting as cultural imperialists by assuming that our readings of Japanese games can or should be the same as those of Japanese gamers?
What I’d like to posit is that is that we should indeed consider ourselves as being on the same page as Japanese gamers. I don’t wish to downplay or marginalize the differences between Japanese and American culture(s), but I also don’t want to position Japan as some sort of mysterious, unknowable Other whose citizens operate on a completely different wavelength than we do here on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Issues such as cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism are most pertinent to situations in which there is a clearly dominant culture and a clearly disadvantaged culture coming into contact with one another; however, with the most profitable video game companies and franchises currently being of Japanese origin, I’m extremely hesitant to characterize Japan as subaltern, at least in the field of electronic media. I therefore don’t think we should consider Japanese gamers as too terribly different from ourselves. Our cultural and educational backgrounds may not be the same, but this may also be said even of gamers from the same country, region, or municipality; and, in any case, we are quite capable of understanding each other’s entertainment media, which is for the most past designed to be accessible to the broadest possible audience.
Still, because most Americans don’t have the same pedestrian awareness of and focused educational exposure to Japanese history and culture that most people raised in Japan have to our history and culture, our appreciation of the stories, themes, and art of Japanese games can be greatly augmented by insight into the culturally specific elements of these texts. For example, regarding the Legend of Zelda games, essayist and game reviewer Tevis Thompson has argued that the main protagonist of the franchise isn’t Link, but rather the land of Hyrule itself:
Building up a world with a past, a believable place with its own logic – that would be enough. Wind Waker’s post-apocalyptic drowned world was enough; Majora’s Mask’s temporal loops and grinning lunar horror were enough. Zelda is a perfect candidate for environmental storytelling. A Hyrule you can dwell in, despite its limitations (perhaps because of them), with gameplay that compels you further in – such a world will produce its own stories.
If the world within a video game can build its own stories, think of how much richer our experience of this world could be if we were able to better understand its allusions, which add layers of depth and meaning to gameplay.
Miyamoto Shigeru’s famous comment concerning how he was inspired to create the landscapes of the Zelda games by his childhood experience of exploring the forested mountains of his hometown of Sonobe in northwest of Kyoto is perhaps apocryphal, but the various caves and temples (shinden in Japanese) of Hyrule are indeed reminiscent of Kyoto, which is surrounded by forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains dotted with enormous temples and tiny hidden shrines. The Skulltulas of the series are very clearly a reference to the jorōgumo (golden orb-weaver spiders) that suddenly drop down to the eye level of hikers in the Kyoto mountains, and the Triforce is the crest of the Hōjō, an important historical samurai clan that lent its symbol (known as mitsu uroko, or “three scales”) to the Zen temples its leaders patronized. Moreover, several story arcs of the series, such as the “Hyrule sinks” scenario of The Wind Waker and The Phantom Hourglass, could just have easily come out of Japanese popular media – such as the influential 1973 novel Japan Sinks – as from American disaster films like Waterworld. Although such marginalia may seem like nothing more than footnotes to a series of games heavily based on Arthurian fantasy tropes and imagery, an appreciation of such artistic elements might help our experience of exploring the games resonate with our experiences of exploring the world outside the games, as it has for Japanese players, who have compared Tokyo train stations to Zelda dungeons.
Although going on a scavenger hunt for parallels between video games and the real world is always amusing, the purpose of the above examples has been to demonstrate that, even in Japanese games designed with “Western” stylizations, Japanese cultural elements are present. In this essay, I want to explore some of the more notable of these elements, especially as they might be of interest to American gamers. Specifically, I will examine how Japanese cultural elements influence the portrayal of race in Japanese video games.