At Tokyo Game Show, I found a Japan that seemed ashamed of its own identity.
Despite its staunch nativist reputation, Japan actually has a history of looking Westward when the situation appears dire. Unlike China—which clung to its myopic philosophy that it was the “Middle Kingdom” and beholden to no nation as European empires conquered the world through the 15th to 19th centuries—Japan realized it was behind the times when American commodore Matthew Perry sailed his gigantic fleet of black ships into what’s now known as Tokyo Bay in 1853 and, at the end of a gun barrel, forced an end to the archipelago’s 220-year-old isolationist policy known as sakoku. From there, Japan realized it had two choices: It could either become a pawn of the West—like once-great China in the 19th century—or it could learn from the greatest European and American minds…and ultimately surpass them.
This led to the Meiji Restoration, which you might be familiar with due to its (fictionalized) documentation in Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai; Japan imported countless advisers from the Western world to help modernize the country in a shockingly short timeframe—an empire on equal footing with Russia, America, and the United Kingdom. Thankfully, World War II ended any militaristic ambitions of this philosophy—but this motif continued in the economic realm after the war as Japan again endeavored to catch up with the West.
While Space Invaders and Donkey Kong made Japan a big-time videogame player from the start, it was also early Western successes like Wizardry, Ultima, and Rogue that inspired the Japanese development scene—in fact, Wizardry led Enix’s Yuji Horii to create Dragon Quest, which, in turn, inspired an entire generation of stellar Japanese RPGs. These innovations embodied the best of the spirit of the Meiji Restoration, combining technology invented in the West and infusing it with Japanese design sensibilities.
That’s why this year’s Tokyo Game Show was so frustrating for me. It’s no secret that the country’s development scene is struggling, but that’s not what bugged me—no, what bothered me was that I saw developer after developer seemingly ashamed of their own Japaneseness and abandoning those design philosophies in an effort to appease the West. Oh, none of them outright admitted it. But the mandate was clear: Americans like big, burly military men and/or Lord of the Rings. Let’s give it to ’em!
One particular scene stood out: Steel Battalion’s Japanese producers, including Tatsuya Kitabayashi, clad in American military uniforms as they demoed a game that revolves around taking back America—one star on the flag at a time—from an invading Chinese army. This was particularly poignant because Kitabayashi was also a producer on the now-canceled Mega Man Legends 3—a franchise and character that Capcom now deems as “too Japanese” for the West. How can a character that so many Westerners grew up with—and helped foster our love for Japanese games—now be “too Japanese” for the West? You got me.
Back in 2008, I went to a Tokyo Game Show filled with beautiful Japanese design and thoughtful games like 7th Dragon, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Dragon Quest IX. Three short years later, those kinds of games were practically nonexistent. They were in such short supply, in fact, that anime-infused fare like Tales of Xillia almost seemed refreshing and innovative by comparison. But here’s a little note about that game: I had to wait three hours in line to play it on a packed public day because it wasn’t actually available on the show’s business days—days aimed, in particular, at Western journalists.
Look, there’s no doubt Japan should look Westward when it comes to certain design practices or business philosophies. But just like during the Meiji Restoration—when there were calls to abandon the Japanese language in favor of English—it shouldn’t lose sight of its own soul in the process.