On March 18, 2004, Katamari Damacy was released on the PlayStation 2. The game was unlike anything else, and a sequel soon followed a year later. In 2009, Katamari’s creator Keita Takahashi released Noby Noby Boy. A year later, he left Bandai Namco and shortly after that, Japan as well.
I’d always wondered why Takahashi up and left Japan, moving first to Canada and then to the United States. As someone who left his own home country to live abroad, I could understand the desire to reside elsewhere. But why would the man behind one of the most important Japanese games of the 20th century leave the Japanese game industry?
During this year’s BitSummit in Kyoto, I asked Takahashi about his decision and about his experiences as an expat. Even though Takahashi speaks quite good English, he and I conversed in Japanese. Takahashi’s manner was relaxed. His sense of humor was dry and refreshingly blunt. Below are excerpts from that conversation.
“After I left Namco, I got an offer in Vancouver, asking if I wanted to work on an online game called Glitch,” Takahashi said. “I thought there was no reason for me not to go.”
Glitch was a 2D browser game that was launched on September 27, 2011, but shuttered a year later in December 2012. According to Takahashi, the game’s developer, Tiny Speck, started focusing more on a real-time collaboration platform that would ultimately become Slack. Tiny Speck has since been renamed Slack Technologies.
Didn’t you think of getting on the Slack team?
“There’d be nothing for me to do, right?,” Takahashi laughed, “I’m a game designer.”
With the project over, Takahashi decided not to return to Japan, but instead move to the US and began work on Wattam. It is slated for release on the PS4 this year.
When you move to a different country, your ideas of what’s typical, standard or even normal are challenged on a regular basis. It’s not just the food or the language, but the deeper you go into a culture, further differences await that strike at the core of your newfound home.
Now living in San Fransisco, Takahashi mentioned how his son goes to the local school. The experience is not only new for his son, but also for Takahashi. It’s a grade school experience that is vastly different from the one Takahashi had as a child: Kids in America doesn’t carry randoseru like in Japan and aren’t required to learn specific kanji characters each year.
Of course, the United States is different, but with another frame of reference for comparison, those variations are fascinating. And Takahashi seems to enjoy the gaps that exist between the two cultures as well as the universality that joins us all as humans.
“I often wonder why America and Japan were so different,” Takahashi said. “Why are they so different? They are different.”
“Take the YouTube clips of the Kingdom Hearts III reveal,” he continued. “I don’t know if they’re staged or not, but the reactions among Americans are so happy. There is really isn’t anything quite like that in Japan—maybe, just one percent of the reactions in Japan was like that.”
“Americans have much more confidence than Japanese people do. I always wonder where that comes from.”
It’s a mystery, I said.
“I don’t know if this is good or bad, but Japanese people seem to lack self-confidence or are worried about what others think,” said Takahashi.
Of course, I said, Japanese people have confidence in themselves, but they just don’t show that to others.
“I think so, too,” he said. “I guess it’s the differences in the cultures. In America, the teachers don’t get mad, unless the kid is really bad. They praise the children to help them develop. They have so much respect for each individual child. So I think this kind of education has a big impact on society.”
These differences manifest themselves in how people live and work.
“In America and Canada, people really put a clear separation between their work lives and their private lives.”
People in Japan say they often feel compelled to be at the office, even when their work is done to keep up the appearance of work.
“The amount of hours people work in the game industry in Japan and the US is totally different. Of course, the hours are longer in Japan.”
When Takahashi was at Namco, he said he was always working, even during the New Year’s holidays, when the entire country is on vacation.
That’s no good, I said.
“No good at all.”
When did you leave Namco?
“When I made Katamari, I was able to go abroad and everyone liked the game, and I was shown all these games that people made. I could really feel their passion, which I did not feel at all from the people at Namco.”
A passion for game creation?
“Right. They love games and so they make them. So, why do I have to make games for these Namco folks who thinking about money? It was a waste of time. The world is so big. I thought I could make different games. That was the biggest reason.”
So, I guess Namco thinks more about games as product?
“When they merged with Bandai...” The two companies merged in 2006, with Bandai bringing a whole host of IP licenses, like Gundam.
And then, was there less creativity?
“Yeah, and there was internal politics, too. It was all a pain to deal with.”
After all these years outside Japan, I asked Takahashi if he ever planned to return to Japan.
“If I returned to Japan, I don’t think I’d be able to find work.”
Wait. What? No. The guy created Katamari Damacy. Surely he could get a job at a Japanese game company.
Takahashi isn’t convinced. “There would be nowhere I could get work, right? Where could I get a job if I returned to Japan?”
Anywhere, I said. He could work in design, art and a whole variety of fields.
“I don’t think it would be possible,” Takahashi said.
You really should have more self-confidence!
“I don’t have any,” Takahashi replied with a laugh. “I think I’m someone who sticks out from the herd, I have a distinct style and I make games that reflect that. So the moment I quit Namco, I thought I wouldn’t be able to work for a big company in Japan again.”
The decision to leave Bandai Namco was brave but leaving Japan was even more courageous. It’s hard leaving your home country, working in a new environment, navigating a different language and culture. But doing so leads to self-reflection about oneself. Your outlook expands, you learn and you grow. Hopefully. But it can be an uneasy decision to take that big first step.
I asked him if he was worried when he quit Namco.
About how it would turn out? I asked.
“I was unsure,” he said. “but I knew that the only option I had was to continue moving forward.” And to do that, he had no choice but to leave.