Despite the global popularity of Japanese video games, most of the time they have traditionally been made with their domestic audience first and foremost in mind - as anyone who was ever completely baffled by something like Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon as a child will know. When you’re playing a Japanese game, you’re getting an experience that’s idiosyncratic to its culture. Some of the thematic and visual motifs that you might have seen in the Japanese games you played growing up - or in those you play today - can teach us something about Japan. The below is just the smallest sampling of the kinds of things that Japanese games can reveal about the culture that produced them.
Shinto and Folklore
While our own little island has been ravaged by Romans, Vikings and of course Christianity, stamping out or co-opting everything deemed ‘pagan’, Japan’s ethnic religion Shinto has largely continued interrupted for millennia, and as such remains at the core of Japanese culture and history. Naturally, this manifests itself in modern Japan’s pop culture, including video games.
When a game is set in ancient Japan like Nioh or Okami, you’ll find yourself fighting alongside allies and against foes directly based on mythical figures and deities. Okami has us playing as the sun goddess Amaterasu herself in the form of a sword-wielding wolf. Hideki Kamiya’s creation interpreted some Japanese mythology with an entertainingly bawdy tone, from the legendary swordsman Susano reincarnated as a drunken fool to the pervy inch-high Issun, who is straight out of a famous tale about a one-inch samurai, Isshun-boshi.
The original Shin Megami Tensei series took inspiration from myths all over the world for its demons - but Persona 4 rooted its principle cast with personas based on Shinto deities and heroes. The protagonist’s starting persona Izanagi is one half of Japan's creation myth, whose sister-then-wife Izanami incidentally turns out to be the true final boss of the game.
It should also come as no surprise that Shinto influence is present in Nintendo games, albeit sometimes in the unlikeliest forms. You’d be hard pressed to think Star Fox has anything to do with Japanese myths until you realise that Kyoto is also home to the Fushimi Inari-taisha, the head shrine to Inari, the Japanese fox spirit, and the 10,000 Torii gates are reminiscent of the arches you fly under in Corneria.
Even The Legend of Zelda, a game associated more often with Western high fantasy, has its share of Shinto references. This is even more evident in Breath of the Wild, where you don’t just find rows of idol statues where you can offer fruit to, a common sight in Japan, but will usually find a Korok hiding there too. These Koroks are undoubtedly inspired by the Kodama, or forest spirits, in Japanese folklore, which coincidentally also appear in Nioh as hidden collectibles - and were also an influence behind the Kokiri in earlier Zelda games.
Mascots, Robots and Animism
By some extension, the prominence of idols in Japanese culture may also explain the popularity of mascots, which exist in practically all facets of Japanese life, from the post office to the military (sorry, ‘Self-Defence Force’) to sports and convenience stores. If you’ve played a JRPG, you’ll almost always have some kind of cute companion along for the ride, from the Moogles of Final Fantasy to Morgana in Persona 5.
Similarly, robots are received with open arms in Japanese society. One of the early manga heroes is Astro Boy, an android who worked for the good of humans. Again, Shinto and the belief of animism - the notion that all objects have a spirit, including man-made inanimate objects - is a popular theory to why this is the case, and a feasible explanation for how only Japan could have created a virtual idol like Hatsune Miku, willed to life from a mixture of intelligent music software. And in stark contrast to Western fears, most exemplified by the apocalyptic visions of Terminator, there is more willingness to explore a robot’s possible humanity - a focal point in games like Persona 3, where robot Aigis even takes centre stage in the game’s extended epilogue ‘The Answer’, to this year’s Nier: Automata.
Incidentally, I learned something really interesting about the appearance of Japanese robots in a class quiz in Persona 5 about the Silver Ratio - which, unlike the Golden Ratio we’re more familiar with, is considered Japan’s most beautiful proportion in architecture and art. (If you really want to bone up on Japanese trivia, pay attention to these classes!)
As a postscript, the teacher comments that this ratio is also used to make mascots look cute with their big chibi roundish faces, like Morgana for instance. But now that you think about it, surely that’s what makes the most famous mascot of them all, Super Mario, a chubby Italian plumber, a distinctively Japanese creation, right? Just look at his face, or even his nose.
Shinto is very focused on ritual practices, and Japan is in turn a ritualistic society, even in the simplest of things like customary bows or the set phrases used without fail to greet or address a customer in a shop or restaurant.
This ritualism was present in the lost art of manual saves in games, but it’s also there in set audio cues and animations. Why else do JRPGs include the same musical interlude when you stay overnight at an inn, or in Shenmue when Ryo actually goes to bed. In Monster Hunter, you eat food to buff up for a hunt, but there are lavish little animation sequences whilst the cats cook up your feast and then whilst you gorge upon it.
There are some general differences between Japanese and Western players’ tastes that sometimes feel like they are widening in recent years. The linear Final Fantasy XIII was well-received in Japan but less so in the West, its director Motomu Toriyama even blaming the lower-than-expected review scores on reviewers who approached the game from a ‘Western point of view’. In contrast, Minecraft, which offers a daunting level of freedom, has had less of a seismic impact on Japan; Dragon Quest Builders puts a Japanese spin on the concept by not only wrapping the premise in one of the country’s biggest franchises, but also including a story and quest-based structure akin to a traditional RPG.
A recent Glixel interview with Jordan Amaro, one of only two non-Japanese developers at Nintendo, touches upon the idea of everything in Japan being “tailor-made”, especially in the case of Splatoon and its supposed limitations with map and mode rotations:
“'I bought this game. Why can’t I just enjoy this game the way I want?' That’s not how we think here. Yes, you did buy the game. But we made this game. And we’re pretty confident about how this game should be enjoyed.”
Understanding and respecting schedules is also important in a game like Animal Crossing, where shops only open at specific times according to the real-world clock - though at least with New Leaf, players had leeway to change opening times to better suit their personal schedules. Meanwhile, the Persona games from 3 to 5 are all about giving you a wealth of activities, but only a limited time in each day to do them.
Another area where tastes and cultural attitudes diverge is, of course, representation of women. Certain types of Japanese game never fail to find ways to sexualise a female character - who would have expected fighting killer robots in Nier: Automata’s post-apocalyptic wastelands to have so much time for upskirting opportunities? Even the most ardent Yakuza fan will have trouble excusing some of the more eyebrow-raising side activities in Kamurocho as being part of the series’s ‘quirks’. Battle Bug Beauties, anyone?