Title: GO
Japanese Title: GO
Author: Kazuki Kaneshiro (金城 一紀)
Translator: Takami Nieda
Publication Year: 2000 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 165

GO is an unabashedly sincere adolescent power fantasy. The novel’s teenage protagonist and first-person narrator, Sugihara, is not only intelligent and an intellectual, he’s also a powerhouse in a fight and respected by the other boys in his school. He reads weighty philosophical books and has an astounding knowledge of music and movies. A beautiful and popular girl named Sakurai is head-over-heels in love with him and has been since she first saw him. His father, an independent businessman and grizzled former boxer, treats him as an equal, and his mother and her friends adore him. Sugihara isn’t gay, but all of his close male friends still ask him out on dates and would do anything for him. There’s just something special about Sugihara, who is the perfect idealization of the teenage boy we’d like to think that we were or could have been.

The plot of GO is exceedingly simple. Sugihara switches schools between middle and high school, struggles to fit in to the new school’s culture, meets a beautiful girl and falls in love, starts studying to get into a good university, encounters a problem in his romantic relationship that leads to tension in his family life, overcomes his conflict with his father in a cathartic argument, and is then approached by his girlfriend with a sincere apology that repairs their relationship.

What makes GO interesting and worth reading, however, is the fact Sugihara is a Zainichi Korean, a person born and raised in Japan by Japanese-speaking parents who is not, legally speaking, Japanese.

Sugihara and his family begin the novel as Chōsenjin, or Zainichi Koreans who hold North Korean citizenship. Although his father was born on Jeju Island in South Korea, he was an active member of the North Korean Marxist Chongryon organization for most of his life and declared his family’s citizenship accordingly. The family officially switches their citizenship to South Korea when Sugihara is fourteen because his mother wants to visit Hawaii. Of course they can’t travel to the United States with North Korean passports, so they join the Mindan, the organization for South Korean residents.

Sugihara’s citizenship changes along with that of his family, but he wants nothing to do with what he calls “their Hawaii adventure.” What he decides to do instead is attend a Japanese high school. Up until that point he had gone to a Korean high school run by the Chongryon, where (male) students are given a strict Marxist education. Sugihara doesn’t care anything for Hawaii, but his citizenship changing overnight sparks a desire to be a part of the wider world. In his mind, this needs to start with attending a mainstream Japanese university. To do so, he needs to enter a Japanese high school, so he studies his butt off and, to the surprise of his classmates and the infuriation of his Chōsenjin teachers, he passes.

When he was younger, Sugihara toughened his fists against the Japanese boys who would chase after Koreans trying to pick fights, and he manages to earn the respect of his classmates at his Japanese high school by beating up a student who tries to pick a fight with him there. This student ends up being a yakuza boss’s son, and his defeat causes him to respect Sugihara as a peer. It’s at one of this young man’s lavish birthday parties that Sugihara meets Sakurai, who had once seen him playing basketball and decided to pursue him. Their relationship proceeds relatively normally, but Sugihara can’t quite bring himself to tell Sakurai and her family that he’s not actually Japanese.

I have to admit that I’m of two minds about this novel.

On one hand, I think Sugihara is obnoxious, and the story he tells about himself is utterly contrived. Every time a conflict arises, Sugihara handles it by being A Super Cool Guy™, which isn’t particularly interesting in terms of plot or character development. I’m also not a fan of Sugihara’s narcissism, which is so overwhelming that it doesn’t leave any room for him to acknowledge that any of the other characters might have an interior life of their own. Sugihara’s relationship with his girlfriend, for example, mainly consists of him lecturing her on his taste in entertainment media. When she expresses an extremely racist viewpoint at a critical moment, there is absolutely no reason for her to have done so save that her entire function is to serve as a plot device in a story that revolves entirely around Sugihara.

On the other hand, the author provides plenty of context for Sugihara’s bravado, citing numerous instances of discrimination that Sugihara and his family have to deal with within Japanese society, a difficult situation that isn’t made any easier by the harsh emphasis on ideological purity within the Chōsenjin community. If everything in Sugihara’s society is telling him that he’s literal garbage, can’t he be forgiven at least a little for indulging in a power fantasy as he narrates his own life?

Interspersed throughout Sugihara’s personal story of how he’s awesome and smart and tough and attractive is the story of his family circumstances. This secondary story begins at the start of the novel…

My father came to Japan with a brother who was two years younger than he was. This brother – my uncle, that is – returned to North Korea during the repatriation campaign that began in the late 1950s. The campaign essentially touted North Korea as an “earthly paradise,” encouraging persecuted North Koreans living in Japan to return to their homeland and forge a life with their compatriots. At the time, most North Koreans had a vague suspicion that nothing good ever came out of anything called a campaign, but thinking it might be better than Japan, where they faced discrimination and poverty, many went back to North Korea anyway. My uncle was among them. (5)

…and reaches something resembling a conclusion when Sugihara gets in a fistfight with his father after his girlfriend dumps him. To me at least, Sugihara’s parents are far more interesting characters than he is, and his relationship with his father is much more compelling than his relationship with Sakurai. Sakurai is a one-note airheaded racist because teenage girls only exist as plot devices, but Sugihara’s father provides a much more nuanced portrayal of the subtle tensions and outright conflict that can arise between national, ethnic, and personal identities.

As someone who belongs to a culture where immigrant literature is an established genre, it was an interesting experience for me to read the story of a second-generation immigrant in a society that is known for its relative ethnic homogeneity. I’ve encountered numerous discussions relating to Zainichi Koreans, but I’ve never read anything quite like GO. Kazuki Kaneshiro, a Zainichi Korean himself, is writing from a firsthand perspective, and his narrator’s deliberate resistance to received narratives about who Zainichi Koreans are and what their place in Japan is supposed to be is extremely powerful.

I suppose that GO can be read as a story of star-crossed lovers, but the relationships with the most emotional impact involve the friendships between high school boys, the frustrated affections between different generations within immigrant families, the misunderstandings between different socioeconomic classes, and the historical tensions between Korea and Japan. If you can get past the casual sexism of the central love story, GO has a lot to offer anyone interested in international literature or, more broadly speaking, coming-of-age stories in general. If nothing else, its narrator’s triumphantly oppositional attitude and cheerfully competitive shōnen manga-style life narrative is a refreshing alternative to more serious literary depictions of the helpless pathos and dysfunctionality of immigrant communities in Japan.

Fantasy Races in Japanese Video Games

Part Two – On Pokémon

Lenora from Pokémon BW

This essay is intended to be a short introduction to issues relating to race in Japanese video games. I’m going to talk about the two most recent Pokémon games in this segment before moving on to the Final Fantasy franchise in the next segment, but first I’d like to give a quick overview of racial and ethnic issues in real-world Japan.

Japan is often characterized as “a homogenous society,” an expression often taken to mean that the country is culturally homogenous, politically homogenous, linguistically homogenous, religiously homogenous, economically homogenous, and racially homogenous. Disproving any of these assumptions is so ridiculously easy that I won’t waste our time by doing so, so let it simply suffice to say that none of them are correct: There is a great deal of cultural, political, linguistic, religious, and economic diversity in Japan, and these diversities lead to the same sort of conflicts and opportunities resulting from similar diversities in the United States.

Racial diversity is a bit more complicated, so allow me to provide some statistics taken from the English-language Wikipedia entry on Demographics of Japan, which summarizes data gathered by the Japanese government in its 2010 population census. Japan currently has the tenth highest population in the world, with between 127,000,000 and 128,000,000 people, of whom roughly 500,000 live abroad. 2,039,000 people, or about 1.6% of Japan’s local resident population, are foreign nationals, most of whom are from China, Korea, and other countries in East and Southeast Asia (although 10% are from Brazil). There are also generally around 50,000 U.S. citizens living in Japan at any given time, as well as an additional 30,000 members of the U.S. military stationed in Japanese territories. The other 125,000,000 people in Japan, or 98% of the population, are of the dominant ethnicity, who are sometimes referred to as “Yamato people.”

In comparison, California had a little more than 37,000,000 people in 2010, 37.6% of whom self-identified as Hispanic and 14.9% of whom self-identified as Asian. Even taking into account its ethnic minorities, such as the Burakumin of western Japan, the Ainu of northern Japan, and the Ryūkyūan Islanders of Okinawa Prefecture, Japan does at first glance seem fairly racially homogenous, at least from a relative perspective.

This is not to say that there is no discrimination in Japan, as even members of the dominant ethnic group can face unnecessary hardships for having the wrong skin tone, hair texture, or dexterous hand (or blood type). Human beings are terrible creatures, and they will find ways to discriminate against one another regardless of what classifiers they’re given to work with. It may be appropriate to point out at this juncture that race is not real – at least not in the sense that it is something that can be scientifically quantified, either genetically, taxonomically, or phenotypically. Race is entirely socially constructed, and different societies construct racial divisions in different ways. Because we’re social animals, race feels very real to us, and the sociological behaviors governed by such perceptions are undeniable. Still, the constructions of race common in the United States, as well as the histories associated with these constructions, do not map perfectly onto Japanese society, just as they don’t map perfectly onto British or Brazilian or Bosnian society. It is therefore reasonable to expect that Japanese texts deal with issues relating to race in different ways that do American texts.

So how is race portrayed in Japanese video games?

I decided to approach the topic by looking at the two most recent generations of Pokémon games, Pokémon Black/White and Pokémon X/Y. Pokémon Black/White is set in the Unova Region, which based loosely on New York City and its adjoining suburbs, while Pokémon X/Y is set in the Kalos Region, which is based loosely on France.

Despite the incredible racial diversity of New York and New Jersey, there were only three named people of color (POC) in Pokémon Black/White: Lenora, Iris, and Marshal. Aside from those three characters, everyone else in the entire game is either Japanese or Caucasian, depending on how you interpret the default light-skinned anime person.

In contrast, in Pokémon X/Y, which enjoyed a simultaneous release across multiple global territories, Grant and possibly Olympia are the only named “black” characters, but just about anyone else, from the player-protagonist character to the NPCs in the towns and cities to the other trainers that ambush you in the wild, can be one of three races: default light-skinned anime person, definitely white, or a sort of pan-POC race.

Pokémon XY Trainer Select Screen

This configuration does three things. First, it sets up “white” (as coded by light blond hair, pale blue eyes, and slightly pinkish skin) as the only definite racial classification. Second, it literally sets up “default light-skinned anime person” as the default, which is interesting in that “default light-skinned anime person” is clearly not the same as “white.” In territories like America and Europe, people of Asian descent are perceived as POC; but, in this game made in Japan, the non-“white” classification is the default race: You look are a stick figure (in this case, the “default light-skinned anime person” player-protagonist character) and see a Japanese/”Asian” person. Third, whereas Grant is probably of African or Caribbean descent (as coded by his darker skin and afro-textured hair), the “pan-POC” race erases racial difference more than it emphasizes it. This “pan-POC” race could be interpreted as Latin American, or as Middle Eastern, or as Pacific Islander, or as mixed race – or however the player would like to interpret it, really.

Grant from Pokémon XY

I don’t want to make value judgments about the implications of this configuration, and I’m not going to veer off on a long tangent by problematizing my own interpretation of these races in light of different theories of resistant reading. However, I do want to say that the games make it completely natural for people of different races to be everywhere and in every profession without any sort of racial stereotyping – or any mention of race at all. Even areas that are meant to be almost stereotypically French, such as Aquacorde Town and Laverre City, have the same mixture of in-game races as the more cosmopolitan areas. The only people belonging to a race that is explicitly identified take the form of various NPC “tourist” trainers, who are given Japanese names and based on stereotypes of Japanese travelers, but perhaps, coming from the perspective of Japanese developers who traveled to France to do fieldwork, such caricatures are not malicious but light-heartedly self-referential. In any case, in the most basic terms of the representation of racial diversity, Pokémon X/Y is head and shoulders over its predecessors in the Pokémon franchise.

Rising Star Didier from Pokémon XY

The Pokémon games have always been set in a utopian version of the contemporary world in which humankind lives more or less in harmony with nature despite not having sacrificed any modern comforts. In such a world, young women and men can travel freely without having to worry about their safety, and roads and communities are structured to accommodate a society completely without cars, which allows people of all ages and from all walks of life to spend time outside wherever and whenever they desire. One of the player’s main goals in each game is to prevent a criminal or activist organization from disrupting this eco-paradise by monopolizing or otherwise exploiting natural resources. In other words, the status quo of the Pokémon games is a society in which people live together peacefully and happily in a close and respectful relationship with the natural world.

In such an environment, there is almost no discrimination on the basis on economic class, or religious affiliation, or on the basis of sex, gender, or sexual orientation. There are even a few transgender characters dotting the Pokémon landscape, and there are almost no gendered pronouns floating around to suggest that performance of gender does or doesn’t correspond to physical sex (no one refers to the “boy” player-protagonist character as “he” or “him,” or to the “girl” player-protagonist character as “she” or “her” in the English translations, for example). It would make sense, then, for race to be treated in the same manner, namely, as mere window dressing that says nothing about the personality or abilities of the character in question.

One might argue that it is irresponsible of the Pokémon developers to release Pokémon X/Y simultaneously across several global territories without attempting to address the real-world social and historical issues related to race, which is after all a major new addition to the franchise in the most recent generations of games. I would counter this argument by suggesting that the Pokémon games engage with the real world not by offering direct critique but rather by serving as a model of what an ideal world would look like and encouraging the player to defend this world from those who would despoil it. By making absolute and unquestioned racial equality a characterizing feature of this utopian society, Pokémon X/Y – and Pokémon Black/White to a lesser degree – encourage the player to become invested in parrying any challenges to this ideal. A player can thus spend well upwards of fifty hours enjoying the benefits of a society in which race is never a critical or problematic issue, and in which obvious truths like “racism is stupid and wrong” never need to be stated outright.

Pokémon XY Female Protagonist

The above art is by Pixiv user Rina.
(Thanks to Kaitou-Al for the link!)

Part One – On Cultural Difference
Part Three – On Final Fantasy