The conventional wisdom has always been Japan loves role-playing games and dislikes first-person shooters. First-person shooters, pundits said, were popular only with Western gamers. The pundits and conventional wisdom, it seems, are wrong.
In its debut week, Call of Duty: Black Ops II on the PS3 is the second best selling game in Japan, moving 197,350 units. If you add in the 22,177 copies the Xbox 360 version netted, Call of Duty: Black Ops II sold 219,527 copies, surpassing the
physical physical and download 213,414 copies Animal Crossing: New Leaf sold. That's impressive! (Even more so when you factor in the bellyaching surrounding the game's localization.)
And it's even more impressive when you look at what rounds out the top five: new Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, Hot Shoots Golf 6, and Super Mario Bros. 2. It's like a game that does not belong.
For years, Western games—or "yougee" (洋ゲー) as they are called—were looked down upon by Japanese gamers. Yougee literally means "Western" (洋 or "you") "game" (ゲー or "gee"). It's not uncommon for Western things to be labelled, such as "youfuku" (洋服), which means "Western style clothing", or "youshoku" (洋食), which means "Western food". Both are extremely common in Japan, and nobody really makes a conscious distinction and no longer really sees these as "foreign" or the "other". These are things, such as blue jeans, that came from the West, but are now produced within the country.
However, the term yougee, as Square Enix president Yoichi Wada once pointed out, has had a "discriminatory meaning" in Japan and was clearly used to separate any other games developed outside Japan. This is something Square Enix has worked to change, and the company is publishing Western titles like Call of Duty. Wada wasn't being hyperbolic; there was even a catchphrase online that summed up Japanese players' attitudes towards Western games: "Yougee wa kusogee" (洋ゲーはクソゲー) or "Western games are shitty games."
But in the last few years, things have really started to change. First-person shooters like Halo have developed an increasingly hardcore fanbase in Japan, which is limited somewhat by it being on the Xbox 360 and most Japanese gamers not owning one.
While Western gamers might debate whether or not Call of Duty is in decline, there are Japanese gamers who seem to really enjoy the series and haven't tired of it—yet. All those arguments you used to hear as to why Japanese gamers don't like first person shooters—such as that FPS games make Japanese people sick or that Japanese players prefer to see the character—go out the window when a title moves 200,000 copies in a week. I expect the sales numbers to be significantly lower next week, but I also expect Western games to do better and better in Japan.
Last year, I interviewed Fumito Ueda, the creator of The Last Guardian. During our talk, he said he was concerned that the same thing that happened to Japanese movies would happen to Japanese video games: for movies, the budgets got bigger and bigger, and today, most of the feature films shown in theaters aren't Japanese.
Western games, too, are getting bigger and bigger, and because of that, more and more Japanese players are attracted to the impressive graphics and production values—the whole spectacle of multi-million dollar projects like Call of Duty. For many Japanese players, Western games aren't shitty games, anymore.