I've lived in Japan for a long time. When I first came here, I liked living here. Now, I don't. I haven't changed. Japan hasn't really changed, either. Something else, however, has.
Maybe all three of these things are part of the same problem.
I would like to say that I intend to flesh out each of the following bullet points in such a way as to minimize hate mail, though that would be undermining the creativity of hate mailers. Instead, I'll just say that, yes, I live in Tokyo and I have for many years, and that I do understand that many of the complaints here are maybe particular to Tokyo. Maybe if I moved out to Osaka, things would be better. What things, though? Well, maybe the people wouldn't bother me so much. Though you know what, if I'm going to choose my place to live based entirely on how little I mind the surrounding people, or if I'm going to live somewhere I wouldn't have to deal with people at all,it might as well be somewhere I wouldn't have to pay quite as much for vegetarian recipe ingredients.
I'm also sure that it's a good idea to address the unavoidable comment that I sound like a person who wouldn't be happy anywhere: Maybe this is true. I have spent a large part of my life circling the globe, immersing myself in languages, and tolerating the hell out of some world cultures. Believe it or not, though, I am the kind of person who focuses on the positive things until, one at a time, I manage to wear them out. In short — and maybe this is just a theory — if I move someplace new, I like it for a while, until finally I can't stand it. This can't possibly be unique to me. Probably millions of people come to not like anyplace they can call "here."
There's a chance that I'm overreacting and/or having some mid-life crisis. Actually, my most recent physical indicates this might just be a quarter-life crisis (I am somewhat unfortunately a paragon of health). To determine whether this is the case or not, I plan to type up a list of things I don't like about Japan. As my frame of reference for "Not Japan," I'll try to use San Francisco. I'll try to start with small things and work my way up to big things. Eventually, we'll enter another topic, which is much more directly related to video games.
Before that, I want to say that all of the Japanese people I know who know of Kotaku.com and are also not complete and total game freaks seem to be under the impression that Kotaku.com is a "website about Japanese culture." Maybe that's interesting. So when I told a friend, "Oh, I'm going to go home tonight and write a column for Kotaku.com," he said, "Oh, so you're going to write about Japan?" For a second, I thought he had read my mind. Well, let's see.
Actually, let's get the
THINGS I LOVE ABOUT JAPAN
out of the way, first.
1. Experimental music: These guys know what they're doing!
2. Classic video games from the 1990s: Goemon 2 is the shit, dude. Panzer Dragoon Zwei is totally the shit, too.
3. Trains: Do I ever love riding Japanese trains — while playing Dragon Quest on DS, and drinking delicious Coca-Cola Zero. [Note: I only love trains on weekdays around noon, when they're not crowded.]
4. Popular music from the 1970s, 1980s, early 1990s
Now onto the complaints:
When foreign cultures talk about Japan, they usually talk about anime and / or manga. Usually, it's anime. Anime is terrible. It used to be okay. Now, it's not. It's inbred trailer-trash in entertainment form: Every season's new Japanese animation places one-upmanship of every single aspect of the last season higher on their list of priorities than even "make something entertaining." The same can perhaps be said of all Japanese entertainment, though it's not relevant anywhere else as much as it is in anime. Anime used to answer the questions of kids' dreams: "How awesome would it be to be a world-class assassin / kung-fu master / robot pilot / baseball hero?" Now it's just a bunch of shit pandering to perverts and pedophiles. Anime heroes used to be people with amazing job descriptions; now they're reasonably young men who find themselves miraculously sharing houses with a dozen girls aged six to nine, accidentally almost touching every other scene. Or else it's just guys with huge hair and impossible weapons shouting jargon. Long ago, manga aspired to be like Dragon Ball Z: graphically iconic, with a story more coherent than it probably needed to be. Now there's the ADHD-addled Dragon-Ball-Z-inspired One Piece, a manga for the Twitter age if there ever was one.
SO MANY PEOPLE SMOKE
I don't like people when they're smoking. I don't like how almost every restaurant has a smoking section, and you invariably have to go through the smoking section to get to the non-smoking section. I don't like that people are allowed to smoke in my favorite little organic vegetable cafe, right there on the floor with the open kitchen. I don't want cigarette smoke near my organic vegetables! Hel-lo? That makes them pretty much not organic anymore! You might as well just be buying them from a hobo, at that point.
In a country so dense with rules and polite gestures, you'd figure less people would so flagrantly brandish cigarettes on the street. They walk and run and walk-run everywhere with the things. You'd figure something would compute in the smoker's brain, when they hold their burning cigarette as far away from their own face as possible — at toddler-eyeball-burning height — that maybe, just maybe, the smoke coming out of their cigarette tip might bother other people as much as it actually bothers them. My neighbor, once, smoked in his apartment, sitting by the window. I could never see his face, though I could definitely smell his tobacco, because the smoke exited his window and promptly entered mine. That was a spring nearly ruined. I once put a note in his mailbox: "You know, if you're going to blow the smoke out the window — if you don't love smoking enough to just close the windows and turn your apartment into a hot-box, maybe you should just quit." He never quit. This was also the guy (or girl) who was always out all night Friday night, and never got home until around 2pm on Saturdays. His alarm clock, programmed to go off every morning at 5am, woke me up every Saturday.
You see a lot of young couples with their toddlers, at restaurants, in the smoking section. I'm sure if I said I'd feel sorry for the kids, someone would point out how Japanese people seem to pretty much never get lung cancer — maybe because of all the green tea, or walking — so it's not so bad if the kids grow up to be smokers. Well, what about the people who, like me, simply find the smoke terrible? That's why they have smoking sections at restaurants.
So lately, they're trying to cut down on people smoking. By "trying", I mean they're putting up signs everywhere that say you'll be fined 2,000 yen if you smoke. I wrote about this before. Well, five months later, I've never seen or heard of anyone getting fined. I once pointed out, to a police officer, that someone was smoking in the no-smoking zone, and asked if he would fine him, and the cop simply asked me for my ID, passport, and visa papers. He looked them over, gave them back, and turned away.
I suppose the number of smokers actually has gone down in the past years, since I've been here. A friend claims that his friend actually quit smoking when the Japanese rolled out a new mandatory cigarette vending machine ID proxy card called "Taspo": to get a Taspo, you have to go through this process of proving your age, supplying a photo, et cetera. You then receive a microchipped card that will allow you to purchase cigarettes from vending machines. In addition to possibly cutting minors off of Japan's abundant supply of cigarettes, it also makes you, the adult, literally a card-carrying member of a club called "smokers." My friend claimed his friend was only a casual smoker, and didn't feel like taking the necessary leap of bureaucracy to join the Smokers' Club. Way back when people first started suiciding abundantly in front of express trains, many train stations installed mirrors across the platform. They were supposed to force the about-to-die person to take a good look at themselves, and give up on giving up. Taspo had something of the same effect on my friend's friend. Weird.
What this has to do with videogames: When you buy Super Famicom games in used game shops, the gray plastic is very often stained deep, ugly yellow from existing in houses packed to bursting with cigarette smoke. Sometimes, the consoles themselves are so yellow. I had fun, one day, by taking mental note of what games were the yellowest. Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms series titles were by far the consistently yellowest of all Super Famicom games. That makes sense. I can't imagine anyone playing Dynasty Warriors, by the way, without a cigarette in their mouth.
Once, shortly after getting a new job, a coworker announced he was getting up to smoke a cigarette. He asked if I wanted to join him. I said I didn't smoke. He was surprised. "I thought you said you were in a band?" Just like that: You're in a band. You must smoke. Well. My excuse that I was just the vocalist, so I needed to keep my throat pure. He mentioned how Kurt Cobain apparently smoked five packs a day. Well. A couple years later, another person learned I didn't smoke, and acted surprised. "I figured you must smoke because, you know; you play video games." That's a real stereotype, man. It exists. In Japan, gamers are smokers. Maybe this impression is born from the fact that breathing in Japanese arcades is pretty much exactly like dunking your head in a bucket of hot water and dead cigarettes. Don't let the hype fool you: Japanese arcades are great because, you know, video games, though man, there is a hell of a lot of smoking going on in those places, man. Maybe the arcades only exist because people need some excuse to get away from their smoke-averse significant other and puff away. Fact: I have never seen anyone playing Tekken 6 without also smoking a cigarette.
Also, I suspect that the Pokemon "Koffing" isn't a symbol of the evils of pollution — he's Japan's Joe Camel, hooking kids on the power and might of smoke.
EVERYTHING IN JAPAN HAS MEAT IN IT
Everything in Japan has meat in it. Potato chips pretty much always have beef or pork extract in them. I've watched ingredient labels with perverse interest over the years. I tend to avoid white bread on principle, eating only whole wheat bread. Still, something caught my eye while looking over the white bread ingredient labels one day two or three years ago (sometimes I'm hanging out in a convenience store, waiting for a friend to make a purchase, and I just need to pick up and gently squeeze something soft): About half of the makers of white bread include lard as an ingredient. This is a thing that I know happens in white bread in other countries. However, since phrases like "lard-ass" and "tub of lard" successfully penetrated to the deepest levels of the collective modern English-speaking human consciousness around twenty years ago, food companies all over the place are avoiding the word's appearance on their ingredient labels. Many bread-makers substitute oils, butter, or — god help us — margarine.
Well, I can now curiously report that, on a recent trip to a super market, I couldn't find a single loaf of white bread that didn't have lard in it. Hmm.
I could rattle off curious examples for hours — like how "Indian" curry powder I liked once happily advertised "Now With Beef Extract" on the can. (Recall Indiana Jones in "The Temple of Doom" — "Hindus don't eat meat! Something's wrong here.") Or how the Japanese variety of Bac-Os bacon(-flavored) bits, which are completely vegan-friendly in America, list "Pork Extract" as the top ingredient, even though — according to a foreign friend brave enough to eat them regularly — they smell and taste exactly like American Bac-Os. Or how a coincidentally meat-free soup stock once changed their label to proudly advertise "Now tastes more like crab!" It had never tasted anything like crab. I checked the ingredients: It definitely had crab in it. You can see where this is going.
The absolute best example, however, involves a ramen shop I used to go to, because they offered a vegetarian-friendly ramen. According to friends who regularly eat "normal" ramen, the vegetarian ramen was unique and delicious. It was also distinctly lacking in iridescent grease bubbles floating on the surface of the ramen. Here is the part of the story where someone in the audience interjects, "Mmm! Delicious grease bubbles!" Save it, asshole! Let me finish: I don't eat meat because I don't like things like grease bubbles. I don't like eating dirty things. I have a lot of fun, lately, making up the weirdest fake reasons for not eating meat: My favorite one is saying that I don't eat meat because I wouldn't want to ingest an animal weak or dumb enough to enter a life of slavery under another species, that the only meat I would eat would be that of an animal which a human cannot actually kill. This explanation, recently, actually drew the serious response, "Well, if you can't kill the animal, you can't eat it!" This, tangentially, highlights another problem I have with Japan — that people don't get sarcasm or irony, though maybe I'm wrong here, and maybe the person who gave that response was just a genius wielding his own sarcasm so fake-seriously. Anyway, this ramen shop caught the attention of some society of Japanese vegetarians. They have a little magazine — which, in Japan, means that it's huge, glossy, printed on cardboard, costs around $20, and comes with a free six-hour DVD. They asked to have their little logo put on the menu standing outside the ramen shops, so the few vegetarians would know this place was safe. The vegetarian people featured the ramen shop in a magazine. That's how I found it. Not long after this happened, the chain coincidentally took off. People really loved their Extra Pork Bone Marrow ramen! The number of locations multiplied.
Eventually, someone higher up in the administration of the parent company was running down a checklist of things they could do to make more money. The suggestion that non-vegetarians might be put-off by the inclusion of the vegetarian magazine's seal of approval was immediately heeded. Only rather than humbly ask the vegetarian magazine if it was alright to remove the vegetarian magazine logo, they decided to humbly apologize that the recipe had changed, and the vegetarian ramen's broth now included pork bone marrow, so they would have to stop advertising as safe for vegetarians.
The underlying principle at work here — that businesspeople realize some people will ignore an entire selection of products because one does not appeal to them — is universal, I guess. Delicious, garlic-based vegetarian-friendly ramen, however, was exclusive only to a few ramen shops in Tokyo. Damn it!
This topic applies to me pretty directly, so I have researched it on and off over the years. In all world cultures, meat has always been associated with an act of sacrifice. Cows can do other things aside from die and be cut up for steak. Oxen can pull plows, et cetera. I have yet to find a single not-high-class Chinese restaurant in Tokyo that serves a single vegetarian dish. In China, however, nearly half of everything is vegetarian. That's the half I eat. In China, meat is associated with wealth and success. Tofu is a food that requires so many nearly-dehumanizing labor processes to prepare. We can live on it, though if we're making it ourselves, it's something we have to devote our lives to. A Chinese friend once told me that Chinese restaurants in Japan serve only dishes with meat in them as some kind of subconscious celebration of their finding success in a foreign land.
Once, a Japanese co-worker, who had gone to Tokyo University and somehow survived on Planet Earth for more than fifty years without decapitating himself on a bathroom door frame, insisted on my ordering some food at a company party I was forced to attend. I had excused myself the day before the party, saying I'd only be able to sit in for a half an hour at the most — a moving truck was coming to my apartment that very night. It was a very real, legitimate excuse. This guy explained to the waitress in painstaking detail that we needed a salad with no chicken, no shrimp, and no tuna in it. The waitress looked over the little notepad in her hands. "This salad . . . it'll only have vegetables in it. Would you like something with some substance?" The man thought for a second: "Bacon!" "Okay", said the waitress, and hurried away. A minute later, I was about to get up. "Where are you going?" the guy asked. "I've got to run," I said. "I just ordered you a salad!" The salad came. There it was, with bacon. "Oh," I said. "I can't eat this. It has bacon in it." "You don't like bacon?" "It's meat." "No it's not!" The man was being deadly, gravely serious. We argued about it in the politest tones possible for maybe three minutes. "Look, man, I don't eat meat. I know what's meat and what's not meat," was my ultimate closing argument. His closing argument, in the Japanese tradition, was the same as mine, only with one of the words in the first sentence changed: "Look, man, I do eat meat. I know what's meat and what's not meat." We ended with a little "agree to disagree" thing. We parted ways both knowing that we were right, only, to this day, I still kind of have the edge, because I actually was right.
What does this have to do with videogames? Have you ever played a game, really liked it, and then found that the sequel went and added something you didn't want, or something that just didn't apply to you? I hate when that happens! Also, that many times the people old enough to make important decisions at the companies producing your favorite videogames are literally stupid and/or ignorant enough to think that bacon is not meat.
THE MANDATORY PARTIES
The Japanese are so serious about work that even work-related parties are mandatory. If you don't go to a company party, you're not part of the team. If you're not part of the team, it's possible you're not actually working at the company.
It's been said, many times, in many ways, that the Japanese are an intense people. The samurai used to, like, ritualistically scream, kneel, and cut their intestines out with their sword if they were disgraced in battle. An attendant would then cut the samurai's head off with a sword. Being serious about parties and requiring all employees to attend or it's they ass is not nearly as bad as forcing an employee to disembowel himself as punishment for the feudal Japanese equivalent of jamming the paper shredder.
Either way, I've never heard a story about someone who got fired directly because they didn't go to a company party. I'm sure it's only ever happened indirectly.
The general consensus is that, if a guy doesn't want to go to a party and get terribly drunk with everyone else in the company, then he obviously has some element of his outside life — a girlfriend, a hobby, et cetera — that is more important to him than the company, so any work he does is less worthy of trust than any work done by anyone who "respects the company" enough to go to all the parties and match the boss drink for drink. Try skipping a party as an employee of a Japanese company: Instantly, you're The Guy Who Skipped The Party, you're The Guy Who Doesn't Care About The Company. Or try going to the party and not drinking. I literally have to say "I'm allergic to alcohol" 40 times before they'll stop pushing me to take a drink.
"Take just one drink!"
"Oh, no you're not! Just take one drink!"
"I'm allergic. I'll die."
Repeat 20 to 25 times, until, eventually, the other guy goes, "Oh, wait, you're serious?" Maybe if I were a Japanese person, and I said this, they wouldn't be attempting to detect irony, and it would go more smoothly. I'd probably also get a profound apology.
Well, these days, people have iPhones, which are more or less like Japanese cellular phones, only browsing the Internet doesn't cost six dollars a page load. If the bar isn't 60 feet underground (they usually are), someone whips out that phone, looks up "alcohol allergy," and says "Oh, all that'll happen is you'll break out in some hives."
"It's just hives, man."
Then I inevitably get someone leaning over and whispering to me, "Hives are not so bad. I get hives when I eat mushrooms. You are really not helping your reputation by refusing to drink, here."
I'm not going to blame just this society-fragment for the poor state of the economy, or even the low birth rate. Rather, I'll blame it and all the things like it. The Japanese have distilled "social life" to a point where it is literally a part of work. The "rules" of working adult society so very mathematically dictate that
1. Drinking = having fun
2. Good employees like to have fun
3. People who have fun are good employees
4. Good employees will never, ever get fired
Maybe you know the story about how Gran Turismo got started because Kazunori Yamauchi, on his first day in the Sony Computer Entertainment offices, wrote out a sample game design idea consisting only of the words "I want to drive my car on my television." What you may not know is that this is more or less the way many Japanese companies have been doing everything creative for maybe fifty years. Occasionally, I'll be out eating dinner with friends, and young people at a nearby table will be talking about opening a business. This is really common: it seems like they have no idea what the company is going to be. Okay, this happens in the West, too — BioWare got started from the idea of making medical software. Well, sometimes, Japanese companies don't even start with that much vision. They're just companies. Who knows what the products have to be? There's a lot of at-wall shit-flinging. Sony, back then, were requiring all employees in the Computer Entertainment division to fill out a Game Design Idea Submission form every single day. What's most intriguing is that — every time I've ever talked to a Japanese businessperson about a product that was actually monstrously successful, it seems that the one thing the boss respected most about their proposal was how it was worded so simply. For example, Kazunori Yamauchi hadn't even filled out the form completely for Gran Turismo's proposal. (If this idea morbidly amuses you, try Kobo Abe's novel Kangaroo Notebook, in which a company man simply writes "Kangaroo Notebook" on a proposal form, exciting his boss's interest and turning his life into a stressful hell. (Among other things.)
What this has to do with videogames: Once, when I was working for a Japanese game company as something of a liaison to help them develop games with a more future-proof "western" method, I suggested that every employee be, at all points in the process, encouraged to offer input on things such as game design. The initial reaction was, "That's what the game designers do!" It took days of near-futile conversation to uncover the controversial finding that, prior to designing a game for the first time, people like Shigeru Miyamoto had actually never designed any games. To be most blunt, modern Japanese games are so soulless because the only people who make them are people who make games. You need some outside influence, I said. And anyway, maybe some of these people who like videogames enough to learn how to program them might have some decent ideas of what they like or don't like in game design? What happened, eventually, was an email: "ALL EMPLOYEES ARE REQUIRED TO REPORT TO THE CONFERENCE ROOM IMMEDIATELY FOR A BRAINSTORMING SESSION RE: GAME DESIGN". Some part-time kid fresh out of college sat there with a notebook, writing down literally everything everyone said. The meeting was a terrible failure. "That didn't work," someone said. "So much for that idea," someone else said.
Once, another foreign employee at another company suggested to the management that they try doing things like ordering pizza — or the Japanese equivalent — for the employees, every once in a while. You know, because these guys put in soul-crushing work hours and could probably use the encouragement from the company. He was immediately greeted with an automaton-like voice: "QUANTIFY: 'ENCOURAGEMENT'". His explanation was that employees who are actually happy, or content, or who feel appreciated, generally do better work. The guys in this company were the type to sit at their desks with bowls of terrible convenience-store ramen through the night. Why not treat them to, you know, one higher class of a food? The human resources department passed the idea around, and figured it couldn't hurt. So, one day, we got an email: "THIS FRIDAY AT SIX PM, EVERY EMPLOYEE IS REQUIRED TO REPORT TO THE CONFERENCE ROOM TO EAT PIZZA". Well, there you go.
I'm told, sometimes, that at such functions at the Mandatory Cherry Blossom-Viewing Party every company holds every year in the nearest large park, if you just relax and enjoy yourself, it's not so bad, and sometimes it's not bad at all.
SOME JAPANESE OFFICE TRADITIONS ARE GENUINELY TERRIFYING
Every once in a while, you're outside, and you find a huge crowd of people in suits and ties. They take up all of the sidewalk. They're all drunk. They just got out of a mandatory company party in the nearest wooden-submarine-like Japanese restaurant whose menu consists of whatever fell off the garbage truck as it peeled away from a flock of particularly aggressive crows that morning. They're standing a circle, completely of their own accord. The boss is nowhere in sight. Someone in this group of juniors influenced them all to get into this circle. Anyway, they start chanting something. You can hardly understand what it is, even if you fluently understand the language. What the hell are they doing? The chant soon becomes a scream. This group of maybe forty young men and women in suits are screaming in unison.
What the hell is that about? The answer is: nothing. They're screaming for screaming's sake. They're doing this to show that they have some energy — any energy at all. This is a subtle hint: Their lives, bodies, and souls belong to the company; the energy that resides in those bodies is all to the company's benefit. If you say it like that, it comes out as sensationalist and weird. Well, it's that kind of thing. You know how football players get into a huddle before a game, bump fists and yell "GOOOOOO TEAM"? It's like that, only they're doing it after successfully Achievement Unlocked: The Drunkening. High school students will do it to celebrate their anticipation of successful performance on, like, college entrance exams. Certain times of the year roll around, and you can't navigate a well-populated street without encountering a large group of screaming, chanting businesspeople. Sometimes, I stand and watch them as they continue to chant for literally a half an hour at a time. Lots of people who I meet as tourists seem enamored with the idea when they first encounter it. It's a different kind of culture. Well, no one likes it after a while, least of all the people who are doing it.
Maybe I can sum up every little point I'm trying to make in this whole word-slab by saying I don't like that so many people agree to do things that they obviously hate doing. At least football players like playing football. Sometimes, they love it! Sometimes, they get severe brain damage, too. Maybe the Japanese don't get severe brain damage from screaming all night in the death-like frigidity of a winter night, though they do sometimes pass out. I've heard maybe six dozen variations of this story from friends who work in hyper-large corporations: Some poor guy, during the Mandatory Daily Morning Gather And Scream in the middle of the office (or, in some cases, the large conference room downstairs), passes out, has a heart attack, an asthma attack, an aneurysm, whatever. I only once worked for a company big enough to have Gather And Scream events every morning, though I was lucky enough to work in a division with mostly old dudes who weren't expected to participate, so that made me not expected to participate, either.
I don't know. I know someone's going to say I'm a racist, or being intolerant, or whatever, though man, that kind of thing is creepy as hell. In other news, looking at my outline of to-be-written bullet points, I am struck by just how many of them concern screaming.
Okay, here's one mostly related: In many Japanese offices, you're required to scream "Good morning!" at the top of your lungs, clapping your hands to your thighs, as soon as you enter the office area every morning. Everyone in the office then shouts "Good morning!" back to you. At my orientation for one company, the Human Resources Girl — whose face (figuratively) literally screamed "Hall Monitor" — was going over the "Good Morning!" protocol. Her explanation weird despite its terseness: "This is how adults interact in Japan." Most of the people at the orientation, like me, were under twenty-five. "Before we move onto the next item, does anyone have any questions?" I seriously and portentously asked a question, then, which I thought was hilarious: "If we're the first one in the office in the morning, do we still have to scream 'Good Morning' and clap our hands to the sides of our legs?" Her answer was immediate, and humorless: "Yes." "Well, I mean, there's no one else around to hear it, right?" "You still have to do it. It's the rule. Every employee must do this. That's why we call it 'protocol.'" This instant was actually the very first time I begin to ponder the logistics of actually going ahead and being homeless. You know, cardboard, up against concrete, is not only not uncomfortable — it's pretty good for your spine!
I pushed further: "What if I am the second person in the office, and the first person is someone with whom I have, previously, managed to successfully cultivate a congenial personal relationship? What if it's a person whose first and last name I know, with whom I share interests and hobbies, and we've previously agreed that we think this 'Good morning' shit is some serious bullshit, and we just agree to be like, 'Hey, what's up' to one another in the morning and we've also agreed that hey, if anyone else asks, we'll just go ahead and say 'Oh yeah, that dude totally screamed "Good morning" to me this morning'?"
The HR girl didn't even blink: "You still have to carry out the customary 'Good Morning.'"
How this relates to videogames: That company I talk about in the above paragraphs? They were a (pretty big) Japanese game company. These are the kinds of things the people who make your favorite Japanese games are forced to do every day.
It's worth noting that I got friendly with a guy in the office — and one day, he happened to be first in the office, and I was second. I didn't say good morning to him. He came over to my desk about two minutes after I'd settled in. "You forgot to say good morning."
"Yeah, I know, dude. How are you doing today?"
". . . You know, I don't really mind, myself, though you really do have to say good morning. If there were more people in the office, and not just me, they would think you were not part of the team. Even if it's just me in the office when you get in, you should try getting into the habit of saying good morning in my presence. This is just how we do things in Japan, Tim."
"Well, [Name-removed]-san, you can try putting 'san' on the end of my fucking name from now on, then, you know, as practice."
Really — all these customs and politeness and whatever, and they go and throw out the customary name suffix and just call me "Tim". Why not "Tim-san"? I'm required to put "san" on the end of their names. It's a little . . . suspicious. I knew from the beginning that I would never "fit in" whether I wanted to or not; well, this was probably around when the rest of the world got the memo.
I never talked to that guy again! From that day on, when I arrived in the office and he was the only other person there, I wold snap my fingers, point directly at him, and then, when I had gotten his attention, I'd give him a sharp military salute, letting some huge "HOOH" sound escape the back of my throat.
SCREAMING IS THE MESSAGE
I can't have not mentioned this before: Employees at shops in Japan scream all the time, and sometimes with no reason. I read several weekly Japanese business magazines, and I once read one where a columnist reported some figures from some Japanese PhD's recent research findings: Apparently, "putting on the impression of being busy" is mathematically proven to be "more important" for making money than either "offering good products" or "offering good service".
Western business gurus have been advising young up-and-comers for years to put "President and Founder" on their business card instead of "First and Only Employee." Well, Tokyo is a pedestrian culture, and on the ground, this advice translate into something terrifying.
Chances are, if you've only spent a short time in Japan, you might have found it endearing. You really came to feel like you were in Asia, what with people screaming everywhere, like they would in an epic Chinese marketplace scene in an adventure film. This atmosphere is completely manufactured. Like, the biggest electronics stores actually keep ladders on hand so that certain employees can climb the ladders and scream indecipherable words down at the customers, through megaphones.
I do not use the word "indecipherable" lightly. Very seldom are the words actual words. A friend let me in on this secret. "You know, aside from 'irasshaimase', they're not using actual words, most of the time." He had prior job experience, see. Apparently, some stores actually demand that employees enlisted as barkers absolutely refrain from using actual words. That's a little weird. I don't like knowing things like that. It's like seeing a cockroach scatter from behind the TV and up into a crack in the ceiling just before you shut off the light to go to bed in a seedy motel: now you have to sleep with that knowledge.
So, wait, if everyone knows that the people aren't saying actual words, why don't they, like, get pissed about it? I mean, that's some serious "The Matrix" bullshit right there. That's a machine there's got to be somebody raging against.
Or maybe it's just me. Maybe these things really don't bother other people so much. Japanese people always tell me, "Oh, it's just a Japanese thing. If you grew up here, maybe you'd be okay with all of it."
Well, sure. Maybe I would have become desensitized to it. Hell, maybe I'm on the verge of becoming desensitized to it right now. Maybe the rage of this current moment is, in fact, a last-ditch effort to affect some change before I can't care less anymore.
Okay, here's what I think is the crux of my problem. When I first came to Japan, and learned that "irasshaimase" meant "come [into the store]!" I expressed a certain amount of confusion to the dude who was playing the part of my tour guide. We were in a Jeansmate — a Japanese jeans store that is inexplicably open twenty-four hours a day, even in towns where (as in ours) the only god damn supermarket closes at eight in the PM. I was looking at jeans, and an employee, standing nearby, was repeatedly yelling "Irrashaimase" at my roommate and I. "That's just how they do things." He must have yelled it maybe a hundred times. We were the only customers in the store. "Why is he telling us to come into the store if we're already in the store?" "Beats me, man," was my roommate's response.
Years later, I was dating a woman who might have really hated me. I think the thing she might have hated most about me was that I didn't hate her. Anyway, I brought up the "irasshaimase" thing, and she groaned. Her first explanation was the knee-jerk: "It's a Japanese thing." Her second explanation was to give me a history lesson: "Irasshaimase is a greeting that dates back hundreds of years, when shops were traditionally stalls in a marketplace. In such cases, the word indicated to customers that they should come closer to the stall, that they should buy their little dried fishes at your stall, and not the stall next to you, which sells the same things." This explanation was good enough. However, the kid in the Jeansmate, years ago, wasn't standing behind a stall. The word "Come [into the store / over here]" is not genuine. The kid was calling it out repeatedly as he folded jeans a few aisles away from the jeans that interested me. If I were to blindly and deafly heed the command semantically buried in his polite perfunctory greeting, it would require me to abandon my act of genuinely curious commercialism.
My problem is that "irasshaimase" actually means something in both ancient and modern Japanese. Like, we have the word "Hello" in English, right? "Hello" doesn't mean anything. You look it up in a dictionary, and it'll say "Word used to greet someone in a friendly manner". Actually, I just made that definition up; let's actually check Dictionary.com:
hello –interjection 1. (used to express a greeting, answer a telephone, or attract attention.)
There you have it. Many of the words used perfunctorily in the Japanese language have both useful purposes and cold, hard semantic meanings. That kind of bothers me. I can't really say why — maybe because I didn't grow up with it? No, that can't be it: I once met a hardcore Japanese punk rock dude who brought up his own out-creeped-ness with the semantics of Japanese customary greetings completely independent of my input.
Like, during orientation at a Japanese company, you're told to use the word "Otsukaresamadesu!" when greeting other employees either in the hallway, at the coffee machine, or even on a train station platform on the weekend. The word means, more or less, "You are tired!" The progression goes like this: When you see someone in the office before noon, you are to tell them "good morning." After lunch has finished, leading right up to the end of the day, it's "You are tired!" So there you have it: Japanese people in the office are expected to work themselves to tiredness before lunch. Or maybe they're expected to eat so much that they get tired.
Of course, it's all a front. You might have heard that the Japanese work insanely hard, or that some people die from overwork. That's a joke. They don't. You know how they die? The same way that kid in Korea died while playing Counter-Strike: The very act of sitting and staring at a computer screen becomes something of an addiction in and of itself; they simply forget to use the toilet, or maybe have an aneurysm. In short, if you've ever worked at an office anywhere in the world, you've done about the same degree of actual work that Japanese people do in Japanese companies. You just might have not had the same semantic prison constructed around you by all the people subliminally intoning "You are tired!" to you every thirty fucking seconds.
Here's what I think of these words: They exist to cut the bullshit out of life. This exquisite, extravagant, repeated conversational miscarriage occurs ever nano-second somewhere in this megalopolis. Say you enter a Starbucks and the girl behind the counter is hella hot. She immediately prostrates herself by shouting a — oh, wait. Starbucks is a western corporation, and forward-thinking enough to say "Konnichiwa" ("Hello") and not "Irasshaimase." Okay, let's say you go into some Japanese franchise cafe, and the hella-hot girl behind the counter immediately prostrates herself by speaking that sharp little sentence-word-knife. Immediately, she has placed herself beneath you. From where she stands at the edge of the synapse marked "Come into the store!" she can just about touch the synapse marked "You are the master, and I am a lowly slave!" with her index finger. (This is going to be important later.) How prone are you to start a conversation with someone in such a situation? Probably not very. Things could, of course, be worse. They could just not have coffee at all.
With the service industry so twisted to a point where "chatting up a shop girl" is literally considered by men-about-town to be the hardest form of pick-up, how do Japanese people make friends? The answer seems to be that, in any sense other than meeting people through school, work, or companies related to their company, they don't. (Not saying that friends you make at work aren't "real" friends, though hey.)
It is only in a social climate where chatting up a shop-girl is considered arcane black magic that a concept like a hostess club can exist. You may know hostess clubs from the Ryu ga gotoku or Yakuza games. Sure. I've talked about hostess clubs at length in a previous column ("can videogames be our friends?"). For now, I'll summarize: Hostess clubs are bars that hire girls who dress entirely in the modern fashion befitting girls who work at hostess clubs. The girls are not only willing to talk to the customers — it's their job, so they have to. These girls, who usually earn more money than their clients, exist in a culturally unique gray area between customer and employee. Men in Japan nearly all transit through a phase, in their early twenties, where their favorite hobby is dressing up in their best clothes, standing in the middle of a crowded street with their best mates, and yelling single words at every reasonably attractive girl who walks by. This is the non-Vegas equivalent of playing the nickel slots: The odds are fucking hell of slim, though who knows? You could strike a jackpot ("get laid"). Then you're up to your ears in nickels ("in bed with a girl who probably disrespects you as much as you disrespect her").
Hostess clubs have become the stuff of video games in recent years, and I hesitate to postulate that the idea of a dating simulation video-game was born of the oldest traditional ancestors of hostess clubs. In the days of dating simulations and of actual slot machines and lottery tickets that could produce a jackpot from a minimal investment, in a society of pedestrians whose every waking moment is some form of game, shackles made of words with meanings that don't always add up to their practical use contribute to the bottling up of what I believe to be some pretty fuckin' weird shit, man. Chatting up a shop-girl used to be the ultimate pick-up, and it was because of the difficulty of said pick-up that "talking to a girl who is involved in some capacity in the service industry" became a certifiable fetish. So hostess clubs proliferated. Hostesses in hostess clubs do not have sex with the customers. That's how they keep them coming. It's business. So now, of course, the ultimate pick-up is to sleep with a hostess who you meet by being a customer in her workplace. Sure, any guy can have sex with a girl who works in a hostess club that the guy has never been to. So, it used to be, the ultimate Achievement Unlocked was to pick up a girl who is bound by the rules of her society to not converse casually with you. Now, the ultimate pick-up is to score with a girl who you were willing to pay money simply to talk to, who you met under circumstances that allowed her to do anything with you except relate to you sexually.
How this relates to videogames: We have centuries of literature and decades of film from which to draw artistic inspiration; we have 1080p graphics and processors capable of displaying tens of thousands of high-definition polygons rotating at the scale speed of sound. And though game designers all know that more interesting methods of communication are possible, when you hit enemies in Final Fantasy XIII, huge numbers fly out in every direction. Huge, horse-choking, golden, gleaming five-digit numerals explode outward everywhere. The game never shows you how many hit points the monsters have. It shows you the shit out of how many hit points of damage you're doing. They do this because this is how it used to be, so that's probably how it should be, forever. The customer is already in the store, and they're going to keep yelling at them, telling them to come in.
Also, it's worth noting that certain other expressions, ejaculations, and exclamations in the Japanese language are also full words. When someone is hurt, they typically don't make a surprised sound such as "Ow", they say "itai" — "[adjective meaning] painful". This really works in Japanese, because every syllable ends with a vowel, making it friendly to exclamations. What's weird is when you play a video game translated from Japanese into English, and the translators are "thorough" enough to translate these actual-word ejaculations into actual words of English. I once saw a video on YouTube of the game Infinite Undiscovery, in which the hero said "Cutitout!" every time he got hit. Oh, god. Maybe, in the Japanese version, he was saying "Yamero!", which pretty much means "Quit it!" or "Cut it out!" Man, it was really weird to hear that. The guy just kept yelling it in the exact same tone of voice every time he got hit. It made me think: You know, in Japan, the guy at the 7-eleven nearest to my house literally does say "Irasshaimase" in the exact same tone of voice every time a customer enters the store. His precision is hardly creepy. However, if you translate this idea into English, it comes across as unforgivably stilted. I feel a transient pride, typing this, that my own native language is less conducive to such robot-like precision.
THE COPYCATS, THE UP-GIVERS
It is my opinion that Japanese businesses generally suck at marketing. My favorite example is The Chokokuro Cafe. I like this example a lot:
Starbucks suddenly existed; people loved it. Starbucks made lots of different kinds of coffees and treats. People enjoyed drinking / eat / inhaling them. Every once in a while, Starbucks came up with something new. Around this time, a lot of Japanese kids whose parents had ridden high during the Pre-Sony-Walkman-Era boom were just graduating college. Seeing as big business was the thing putting the Japanese all over the map, most kids around then had been studying business. About half of everyone wanted to work their way up a big company. They're probably still at their desks, answering the phones, right about now, at four AM on Sunday, waiting for that day when they won't be answering the phones anymore.
Anyway, lots of people started cafes, for some reason or another, right around the time Starbucks really took off. I wonder why. As if having four Starbuckses on one city block wasn't bad enough, you now had to deal with literally four Starbuckses and then one of each of two dozen other franchise Starbucks clones.
One of these Japanese franchise cafes was called Saint Marc's. The Saint Marc corporation was founded in 1989 by a couple of young people who didn't know they wanted to have a cafe. Eventually, they had a cafe.
Okay, I'm not going to glorify this. They just had a couple of cafes in Tokyo. They were known for an edgier decor than your old-school Japanese cafes, or than Starbucks's down-home feel. They made a lot of little pastries, you know, just flinging shit at the wall. Nothing stuck. Well, eventually, they made a croissant with a little bit of chocolate in it. They called it the "Chocolate Croissant." What a name! I'm not really sure how this happened, though it got popular. Some women's magazine must have written a review or a recommendation of it. I was dating the woman who might have sincerely hated me around the time this happened, because she mentioned having heard about it, and wanting to eat it. I learned a lot about marketing from that woman, literally and figuratively. First of all, her saying she'd "heard about it" was stated so generically that she could have been indicating she'd heard about it from a friend or from some media source. At the end of the day, it was the same thing. I ate one of the Chocolate Croissants. It tasted like a chocolate croissant.
Not two years later, Saint Marc's Cafe had changed the name of all their locations to "Chokokuro Cafe". "Chokokuro" is a little abbreviation, like "Pokemon" is to "Pocket Monsters." "Chokokuro" is short for "Chokoreeto Kurowasan." (In Japanese, as in French, the "t" in "Croissant" is silent.)
Starbucks evolved from a small chain of cafes to a huge one by consistently introducing new products, constantly pushing the envelope. Right? So what the hell? They just immediately changed their name to reflect the name of the first product that brought them moderate success.
A Japanese friend who works in marketing told me this is the "Japanese resolve." A company sees its fate and resigns itself to it. I think it sounds more like someone just giving up and settling for what they have. Now, there's nothing wrong with limiting one's ambitions, in theory. I'm not the kind of person to say that everybody should want to rule the world. My main beef here is that, in the hip, beautiful town of Koenji, in which I live, the only franchise cafe is a Chokokuro Cafe, not a Starbucks. Chokokuro Cafe has a smoking section, separated from the non-smoking section by a maybe-four-foot-tall wall of plastic. Starbuckses the world over are smoke-free. So yeah, I've kind of come to hate on Chokokuro Cafe at every opportunity: If they're so willing to just settle down and marry their proverbial high school sweetheart, why do they try to keep expanding? Eventually, they're going to find they've expanded too far, spread themselves too thin. What's going to happen, then? Businesses like Chokokuro Cafe are nonchalantly dumping tiny little rabbit turds into the ocean-sized reservoir of the world economy.
How this relates to games: So you have all these little niches, right? How many of them, really, need to exist? You have people sitting around in planning rooms going, "How are we going to get more money?" "Whose money are we going to get next?" It's fairly simple why they want this money. Business is like a shark: it moves forward, or it stops breathing. Nobody wants to retire, because if they work a little bit harder, their ideal retirement yacht might grow an extra bedroom.
I mentioned in my last column that trends only move forward into the mainstream because someone in marketing decides what the next big thing is going to be. This happens a lot with games. Only — I think — the producers and marketers of games in Japan are particularly out of touch with their fan-base. Every other game is one of two scenarios:
1. Producers taking a niche and encouraging it — like, say, we have maids, right? Maids creep me the hell out. Above, I mentioned how girls (and dudes) working in normal cafes, or any kind of restaurant, immediately place themselves a level lower than you, using very ancient, stilted words. Someone must have noticed how close Japanese polite society stands to a brave new service industry populated by individuals who literally proclaim to every customer, "You are the master! I am the servant! You are awesome! I am scum!" Maybe there was a manga with a maid in it, and maybe some people thought that was funny and made jokes about it; it escalated, and they started drawing their own comics; eventually, the marketers caught wind of it, and it became A Thing. Now it's a niche. Why encourage these niches? Eventually, the people who started the joke see how seriously it's being taken. At first, they support it monetarily with some unease; sooner or later, their unease has given way to high-pitched laughter, as a private joke builds into an industry in itself. Like, they have this cell-phone game now where you raise a hostess like a virtual pet. I suppose the intended audience is dudes who think this sort of thing is hilarious, though what's the possibility that those games exist so that girls can aspire to be hostesses, and consider the game some kind of primer for their future lifestyle? Where are we headed, then? The producers might be the type of people to think, "Yeah, the hostess club industry exist because of some weird multi-layered passive aggressive need cooked in the crucible of Japanese semantics for centuries, and there's probably a better role-model for girls, though some girls want to be hostesses already, and it's more profitable to not try to change their mind." I realize I sound like one of those conservatives saying they shouldn't hand out condoms in high school, though man, like George Michael said, "Sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it — everybody should". "Natural" means we are born with penises and vaginas and what-have-you. We are not born with a natural inclination to, you know, need to dress in gaudy clothes, tell men up-front that sex is an impossibility because of contract stipulations, and then proceed to take their money in exchange for the service of acting surprised whenever they mention how tired they are from work.
2. Entertainment distilled to an impenetrable essence: Final Fantasy XIII is such a good example for this: They took out all the towns and all of the situations where you feel like you own the world in some small part. Instead, rather than take what didn't work all the time and try to make it actually work all the time, they took what did work, and left it all by itself. A perfect example is the Amazon.co.jp page for Sega and tri-Ace's RPG End of Eternity. The "product description" reads like a bullet-pointed list from one of the Japanese game industry's beloved PowerPoint presentations, which got sent to Amazon administrators on mistake. I will not embellish my translation:
"Graphics are very pretty: the game is on a high-end console."
"Innovative RPG battle system: different from other RPG battle systems."
Here's the one that actually scared me of the whole world for a couple of minutes:
"Feels like a game: is easy to play, and features level design that will not stress the player."
I feel like I've seen into a confidential document, here. This is the agenda: to never stress any players again. Damn it, when I was eight years old, I loved feeling stressed when playing Final Fantasy. The experience spawned a lifetime of seeking out digital stress and triumphing over it. In The Real Life, I am stress-free. (Mostly.) Might these things have some connection?
If this is the direction things are headed, then the games of the future are going to be fuckin' scary. It's like, what if they made a Cap'n Crunch that was all Crunchberries? Oh wait. They did. Okay: What if they made a Lucky Charms that was all marshmallows? Japanese games, thanks to Chokokuro-like thinking, are now like ramen with more noodles and less soup, because people like the noodles more, and lots of jerks manage to finish the noodles without finishing the soup.
JAPANESE COMEDY IS NOT FUNNY
I can't get behind Japanese comedy. God, I can hardly stand to be in front of it.
The majority of Japanese comedians are people who stand on a stage reciting one catch phrase over and over again. Like, there was this guy who dressed up roughly as a player from the "Lion King" musical, stood on stage, and chanted like at the beginning of "The Circle of Life." He would occasionally stop, be awkwardly silent for a moment, and then start chanting again. He was really popular for a while. I mean, that was all he did. He wasn't given his fifteen minutes of fame because he was somehow more appealing or interesting than everyone else working in the field — it was simply his turn in line.
Another form of Japanese comedy involves two men standing on a stage simultaneously. I don't like this form of comedy. I've expressed my dislike for it to many people, including people trying to make it in the field of this very form of comedy. I say the comedy is antiquated and Bob-Hope-like. The comedians or ex-comedians to whom I express this opinion all sigh, say, "You know, man, I'd love to get out there and do some edgy jokes, though that's just not how it works here, man. You have to play by the rules. You wouldn't understand. You're not Japanese."
One particular comedy routine I once witnessed involved two guys — a skinny guy and a fat guy. They approached the old-fashioned microphones, stopped, bowed to the audience, and began:
Skinny Guy: Hello everyone! Nice to meet you! We are [Dumb Name of Comedy Duo].
Fat Guy: We're very glad to be here.
SG: We hope you will enjoy being entertained by us, and my apologies in advance: my partner is kind of fat.
FG: Anyway, let's get star—hey! Did you just call me fat?
SG: No, I didn't. You must be hearing things.
FG: Oh, I'm sorry. Anyway, last night I was drinking beer—wait, are you SURE you didn't call me fat?
SG: Oh no, I certainly did not.
FG: Oh, if you say so—
SG: You really ARE fat, though!
Both: Goodnight everybody!
And that was it.
"Given a thirty-second slot in a revolving door of comedy duos at some little club, how would you challenge the rules of the comedy duo format?" I asked this guy, this one night, at this dinner-thing.
He paused. He didn't stop pausing.
"What I mean is, what kind of comedy is it that you really would 'love' to do? Give me a for example."
"It's . . . hard to just think of something off the top of my head."
"Here's one you can use — just come out and immediately say, 'So, I just want to confess, I haven't jerked off in four years. Yeah, ever since that day my microwave malfunctioned, I can't reach my hand high enough over my head!"
"I don't get it. Masturbation is a taboo topic, so, no."
Here I could talk about how EVERY JAPANESE POP SONG IS ABOUT THE SAME THING, and how you really need to only know maybe six words — one of them "wasurenai" ("[I / he / she / it] [will not / does not] forget") to get the basic idea of what they're always saying. Every song is about people meeting for the first time, about how they'll never forget when they met for the first time, or how "because of you positive [adjective]". I could complain about this, though I find it easy enough to ignore, so it doesn't bother me. You might say I could ignore comedy by turning the TV off — not so. You can't. I keep my TV off religiously. Japanese comedy finds a way out of the TV. It seeps directly into normal people's conversations. You can't ride a train, sometimes, without being surrounded by catch-phrases. I can't say for sure, though I reckon many Japanese men inherited certain speech idiosyncrasies by watching catch-phrase-oriented television programs.
It's not just comedy. Japan is land of the abundant "Famous For Being Famous" class of entertainers. If Paris Hilton were Japanese, they'd literally have her anchoring the fucking national news. The most common TV show is a genreless, formless, gelatinous entertainment blog in which the Famous For Being Famous sit around a table and view video clips. The video clips expand to fill our entire TV screens; a picture-in-picture shows the faces of these Famous For Being Famous people as they react. They say things like "SUGOOOOI" when something impressive happens. They say "OMOSHIROOOOOI" when something is interesting. They say "OISHISOU!" when something looks delicious. Men say "UMAI!" immediately after taking a minuscule bite of food, sometimes before they even swallow, in this nasal voice, in a tone like they just ran up a flight of stairs.
It took me a while to really catch on to what this is. A coworker prepared a new variety of cup ramen for lunch; another co-worker looked at it and said "UMASOOOOOU" like he was on TV. Dude took a bite of the ramen, slurping it loudly, like people do on TV, like you're supposed to do it. "UMAI!" he yelled, before the heat of the boiling water could even vent out of his mouth. Japanese television is a way of programming the mannerisms of tomorrow's society and/or/by propagating the mannerisms of yesterday. It scared the shit out of me. Once I got back from the toilet, I thought about it some more, and realized that Japanese television is mostly something people put on in the background; it's wallpaper for conversations. I know some people have some great conversations in Japan, usually with the TV off, though hanging out with those people didn't earn me financial stability, much less the right to continue to live in this country, so I had to stick with the people who need the TV to know how to react to a delicious meal.
JAPANESE MOVIES SUCK
Okay, "Ponyo" was one of the best films I've ever seen in my life, though for the most part modern Japanese films kind of blow. The film industry figures all they have to do is spend one yen more than their last mathematical success, and the world can keep on turning. "Big budget" in the Japanese film industry usually means that shit was shot on Beta Cam.
In Hollywood, yes, it's true that almost everything is a remake or a sequel. In Japan, the shame is even thinner. Last year there was a movie version of the manga "20th Century Boys." The poster showed all of the actors in the film, each of them positioned in poses that mirrored poses their characters had assumed in particular memorable panels in the manga. Only — get this — the poster also included the manga panels, so you could know exactly how much the actors looked like the characters in the manga. Also, whenever there's a popular book in Japan, they'll make both a movie and a TV series out of it at the same time. I don't like this because it seems like, if they really think the story is so great, why don't they pour all that time and effort into making, say, one really spectacular, world-class film out of it? Oh, because of the money.
Then there's the issue of movie stars. Without getting too heavy into specifics, let's just say that the Japanese entertainment industry is like what would happen if, every single year, One Movie Studio released precisely three films each starring Batman, Superman, Spider-man, and Iron Man, with the same actor in the lead role of all of them. Or, no, this is better — the Japanese entertainment industry is like what would happen if ABC, NBC, and CBS announced that they were replacing the hosts of all of their late-night talk shows with Regis Philbin, starting immediately.
THE PASSIVE AGGRESSION
It's hard to find a garbage can in Tokyo. That's why the city is so clean — the people carry their garbage everywhere. In addition to being a metaphor for the en-masse bottling-up of passive aggression in Tokyo, it's also the truth.
Try sitting at the window on the second floor of the Starbucks at Hachiko crossing on a rainy day. That's the busiest pedestrian crossing — and the busiest Starbucks — in the world. Watch people crossing the street with umbrellas. Every once in a while, you'll see someone just . . . slam their opened umbrella into someone else's. It's pretty terrifying to see how often it happens.
Tokyo is the city that invented the transparent umbrella — that's a plus, I guess — and it probably came about to help people walk without bumping into one another. It doesn't always work, of course. Sometimes, someone bumps into someone, purely by accident. Many times, the someone being bumped into has had a hard day of apologizing to his superiors six times an hour, perfunctorily, every time they come back into the office from a cigarette break. The tension is building. So, sometimes, this person who's just been bumped on accident sharply and angrily bumps into someone else, on purpose. The second person bumped in our little example is officially the victim of a violent outburst. They wonder, "Why me?" Maybe this stirs up violent feelings in them. Eventually, this escalates to a point where either someone gets punched in the throat or kicked in the nuts, or someone just goes home and drinks himself to a dreamless sleep and a morning hangover.
I used to think old men grunted at me on the train because they didn't like foreigners. Maybe that's not it. Many of my Japanese rock-dude friends report being grunted at pretty often. The one thing we all have in common is that we sometimes ride the train during nighttime rush hour, and we're not wearing suits. The old men don't like people who are not in the same exact situation as themselves. I get really ugly noises — teeth-sucking, lip-flicking, throaty grunts — every time I get on a train. I guess I look like a bit of a flake. They probably think I came over here on a mission to fornicate, or something. It's not me so much as it's all people younger than 80. The old people are the majority, and they don't like us because we lack the drive they had. Well, they've done fucked up a whole lot of shit, financially speaking. It's terrifying to see so many dozens of seventy-something man, drunk, on a train, in a suit, on the way home at midnight on a Wednesday. If I was thirty years old, and I put on a suit, and I'm still wearing the suit at age seventy, and I still don't have a car, or a chauffeur to drive me home when I'm drunk, or at least money to pay for a taxi, man, I'm taking that fuckin' suit off.
The birth rate in Japan is plummeting, and something like 33% of newlywed couples ask for two master bedrooms in their new homes. People aren't having sex, and they're not trying to set the world on fire financially, either. The old people feel like the young people are giving up. It's a cliched kind of situation.
SHIT BE EXPENSIVE UP IN HERE
To exist in Tokyo is to stand in a packed rush-hour train with your nose pressed against hard against the back of the head of the black hole named "Supply And Demand." It costs like $25 to see a movie. If you're considering renting the entire first five seasons of "LOST" one episode at a time, you might want to also consider taking out a loan. New CDs from popular average around $40 each. If you want to go see a no-name band play at a bedroom-sized bar, it's going to cost you around $40.
You might wonder, "How is this happen?" Man, there are so many reasons. Movie tickets are as expensive as they are because
1. Real estate is expensive
2. Approximately 60 million people live within an hour's commute of Central Tokyo
3. Seats are limited in cinemas
4. The price is fixed at pretty much the precise point at which movie tickets will sell out
CDs are so expensive because, ever since the earliest days of CDs, rental has been legal. Every rental joint knows exactly what's up: Back in the 80s, they sold blank cassette tapes. Later, it was MDs, then CD-Rs. Now, everyone has an iPod. iTunes can't even get a break over here: When you can rent an entire CD for $4 and then rip it, why buy the songs for $2 each?
Of course, the bands I like typically don't have their CDs available for rent at the major chains. That doesn't stop them from charging professional prices. If you want to like music over here, you need to be willing to surrender all of your disposable income.
Also, games tend to pretty much always cost $100 on their release dates here. It's getting fairly ridiculous. Game rental generally doesn't happen. So most people who buy new games race through them lovelessly so they can sell them back to the local used shop before the buyback price drops. I'm sure the publishers have crunched the numbers a thousand times, and come up with some reason to justify not lowering the initial price of a typical game. I researched this topic a couple years back, and one of the recurring theories was that game publishers know that used shops exist, and they wouldn't like to cannibalize their businesses by ultimately producing fewer used games. Recently, some retailer in, uhh, New Zealand, was it? They said they refused to carry the PSPGo. The reason was obvious: digital games will be everything sooner or later. They'd be out of work. At least they had the guts to say something public about it. In Japan, everyone just keeps their hands under the table.
Maybe this is the reason games and movies suck: Barely no one in the media ever says anything subjective about anything. When a mild celebrity says a food item "LOOKS DELICIOUS!!" their tone is so rehearsed and sterile that it might as well be a statement of fact. The magazine publishers and content providers are such a close-knit group that they silently agree to say only positive things. This is why Weekly Famitsu — a game magazine — is noteworthy. They actually have some semblance of subjectivity in their weekly reviews section. However low the numerical scores may be, however, the reviewers seldom say anything negative. And though Famitsu's reviews consist of four viewpoints, the fans are prone to more or less always consider the score as a total out of forty rather than four scores on a scale of one to ten. And it's hard to find any other critical voices in Japan. No one wants to hurt anyone else's money. PR is thoroughly integrated into every aspect of business that
I'M ALMOST FINISHED
I only have a few more things I want to say before I conclude this. I should just write off a few of my frustrations as quickly as possible, or else we'll be here all day tomorrow as well:
Every damn store I ever go to always moves every single item from one side of the store to the other every three months. They never have a reason for doing this. I think they just want to find an excuse to keep the employees after hours, screaming in a circle to psych themselves up for the act of moving shelves and stock. I went into my favorite local used book store the other day, and couldn't find anything. They had a big sign out front: "We've moved everything in the store! Come in and take a look!" Uh, okay. American supermarkets will sometimes advertise a gallon of milk for $.99. The milk is always in the refrigerated section, in the back of the store. So you might go in there just to get milk, and end up getting a bunch of stuff you didn't know you wanted. This works, because groceries are very impulse-friendly. Moving everything in a major electronics retail store, however, just feels tacky. Do you seriously expect me to get lost on my way to find DVD-Rs and suddenly go, "Oh man, I should get this MacBook Pro — and this 57-inch LED HDTV"?
At one office where I worked for a while, they actually hired a guy from an efficiency expert firm to sit in the office for a week and analyze where the staff should sit. Anyway, they consulted the same firm every other month. They must have moved the coffee machine like twenty-four times in one year.
STOP APOLOGIZING TO ME
So yesterday, at my favorite used book store: a guy held a mouthpiece and spoke over the PA, repeating the same message for the duration of my perplexed wandering: "DEAR HONORABLE CUSTOMERS: THERE IS NO EXCUSE: IT IS WITH GRAVE FEAR IN OUR HEARTS THAT WE APOLOGIZE SINCERELY FOR MOVING EVERYTHING IN THE STORE. IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS, PLEASE ASK THE NEAREST EMPLOYEE." It's like, man — "really good at apologizing" is a shitty thing to write on a culture's resume. Why not try avoiding the situations where you'd normally have to apologize?
I once worked at a company where "I'm deeply sorry for not picking up the phone sooner!" was the required telephone greeting. We were coached in orientation to use a neighbor's phone to call our own desk phone to learn the exact length of one ring, so that we could practice the timing of picking up the phone partway through its first ring — not soon enough to freak out the person on the other end.
TEMPLATE CONVERSATIONS CREEP ME OUT
I swear, at every party I've ever been to in Japan, this exact conversation has occurred, word for word:
"This beer is delicious!"
"Yes! This beer is delicious!"
"There's nothing quite so delicious as a cold beer after a hard day of work!"
You know those trees in "Lord of the Rings", where they have to sit in a circle for an hour making low sounds just to say "hello" to one another? That's what this is like.
"I'M SORRY, IT DOESN'T HAVE VERY MUCH STUFF IN IT"
I used to go to this restaurant with a really delicious pepperoncini pasta. It's a pretty simple kind of pasta — just oil, garlic, and peppers. Every single time I would order the pasta, the waitress would utter, in the same practiced tone: "I'm sorry — it doesn't have very much stuff in it".
Eventually, I went there one day, and the pasta had shredded octopus tentacles and bacon in it. I never went there again. :-/
THE "DRINK TICKET" SYSTEM
When you go see a live musical performance, the venues always force you to pay at least 500 yen for a "drink ticket." They do this even if you're on the guest list! It's weird. The idea is that the venues are not primarily places people go to listen to music: they are places owned by people who want to make money from bands who want a place to play a show. Bands put out a bunch of money to rent the place out for the night. The bands divide up the ticket sales. The venue gets to keep the money from the drink sales. To encourage people to drink, they literally force you to purchase a "ticket" for a drink prior to entering the club. If you don't purchase the drink ticket, they won't let you in. I would know; I've tried it. You know, in any country aside from Japan, 500 yen is about what you'd pay for cover at a dive bar.
If I buy a drink at a convenience store and say I don't want a bag, they insist on putting a little piece of tape over the barcode. Most of the time, they put it on sideways, instead of vertically — you know, the way that would prevent the barcode from being scanned by a rogue scanner. They do this so you can prove that you paid for the drink, should you roll into another convenient store glugging away. For some reason, the longer I live in Tokyo, the more this really shits me off. I don't know why! I like to take the tape off, stick it to my receipt, and then drop it into the little trash can by the register.
WEIRD RESERVATION RULES
I wanted to write a story for Kotaku.com (this website right here) about what it was like to go visit the Dragon Quest IX-themed "Luida's Bar" in Roppongi. I couldn't do this, though, because, despite their having nine empty tables, my friend and I weren't allowed in! You know why? Because we had failed to reserve our table twenty-four hours in advance. Actually, we would have needed to make reservations more than twenty-four hours in advance: We could only reserve a spot between eight or nine PM on Wednesday between twelve and four on Tuesday. Dragon-Quest-themed bars in Roppongi aren't the only places to do this. It's a thing insecure Tokyo business owners do when they are afraid of their place being empty at peak hours. When you think about it, it makes some kind of marketing sense. People unable to get in are then forced to think really hard about getting in next time. In Tokyo, when consumers start thinking really hard, they end up spending more money: In the case of the Dragon Quest bar, that means they would buy more drinks. Don't ask me to prove this, because it will extend this already bloated chunk of pseudo-prose by another six thousand words.
Then there are things like how Dominos Pizza, should you register for their web-based pizza ordering service, will send you digital coupons. The coupons expire in two weeks. If you don't use the coupon, it will never disappear from your "Coupon Inbox". If you do use the coupon, it does disappear. This is interesting because, sometimes, you'll be looking at your coupon box, and go, "Man, I could have saved like fifteen percent on like six pizzas! If only I ate more pizza!" This epiphany is about as richly cathartic as any big story reveal or any any battle-system-related "Aha" in any Japanese RPG.
A tenuous video-game connection I can think of off the top of my head is when Eiji Aonuma told an interviewer that Zelda fans are so faithful because puzzles in Zelda games make the player "feel smart." On the one hand, maybe making consumers feel smart, or at least thoughtful, makes them end up spending more money somewhere down the line. On the other hand, I didn't get to enter the Dragon Quest bar, and that sucked.
This was 2009.
Again, this is a language issue, though again, I am going to presume that it accounts for a decent amount of passive aggression. I can't possibly be the only person who is creeped out by this stuff: There is a whole verb in Japanese which, when appended to the stem form of any other verb, allows you to express the opposite of that verb without having to use its negative form.
Maybe that description didn't make much sense. It's like, append the positive form of this verb to the end of the stem of the verb in the sentence "It's possible to do that", and you can make the sentence mean "It's not possible to do that." Though since verbs end the sentences in Japan, it's more like "Yes, we can do that for you — NOTTTTTT." I mean, how is that "polite"? How is that the way to deal with people in business? Do people feel really great whenever they use that in a professional conversation? Do they feel like they just scored a four-hit combo in Street Fighter IV?
There's a distinct personality type existing all over Japan. I call it "Everyone's Uncle". Eventually, a guy just barely outgrows the "Big Brother" personality type, and suddenly becomes like everyone in the room's uncle. This is the guy who Don't Do Shit at the office usually. When there's a party, he'll be the guy who immediately grabs the menu, counts up the number of people at the table, asks for a show of hands, says "Who is NOT drinking beer?" He'll bark to the waitress how many beers we need, and bring us some of this fried chicken cartilage and these potato things, and some edamame beans, and some salad, and some pickles, too. Man, I hate this kind of guy. As long as the boss sees him going and getting at the party, this guy is not going to lose his job anytime soon. In fact, he's going to get promoted, and he's going to be telling you what to do, and he's going to be pulling figures off the internet, and going, "Oh, it looks like this game called Halo 3 has twenty-seven guns in it. Our game only has, what, four? We need to step it up!" And you say, "Well, Halo 3 was made by a team of like six hundred people. We've got, uhh, about sixteen people." And then he pumps his fist and says, "We're just gonna hafta work overtime!" No we're not, asshole.
THE EMOTION GESTAPO
In an earlier column ("Stop Telling Me What To Do"), I talked about a system of loudspeakers set up in my neighborhood, blaring advertisements for local businesses. The voice of these advertisements is an old woman who sounds like she got lost on the walk home from the supermarket. The speakers are illegally placed; the businesses advertising on the service have never met a representative of the advertising service. They only receive phone calls, once a month, with bank transfer information. The account changes sometimes. The police won't touch the advertisements, because the situation sounds like the yakuza are involved. So the people of my town live in fear and annoyance.
This bothers me, sure, though what also bothers me is when, on a weekday afternoon, I'm walking on a quaint little street in another town, and the loudspeakers are blaring classical music. Like, "Here you go! Listen to this music! This is how you should feel right now!" Life isn't a television drama, or a movie, or a video game, man. It's real life. That's why they call it real life!
My gym refuses entry / membership to anyone with a tattoo. This means my drummer can't work out in my gym with me. The reason for the tattoo hatred is, so the urban legend goes, to keep the yakuza out of the gym / bathing area. Well, what about a white guy with a tattoo? He's obviously not in the yakuza. It sounds more like stereotyping in that context — that a "nice," "good" person wouldn't have a tattoo.
So, why do they let so many clearly insane-looking octogenarians into the gym? We have one guy who looks like Mister Magoo. He gets on the chest press machine, puts it down on the lowest weight — five kilograms — puts his hands on the handlebars, and screeeeeeams like he's taking a dump on a planet of extreme gravity. The weird thing is, he's not even trying to lift the weight. It doesn't even move. Oh, and then, there's the creepy SOB who wears a track suit, holds two one-kilogram weights at shoulder-level, stands in the middle of the free weights area, and shakes his hands almost like he's miming running up a flight of stairs. In a voice just above a casual conversation, he counts his "reps" — from "one" to well past a thousand. Then there's the really old guy who gets the lightest possible resistance band, wraps it around the side of the squat rack, through the Smith press, and over the bench press, effectively commandeering half of the free weight area; he holds it in place, and screams.
I think, in general, the Japanese seem to be comfortable stereotyping and being stereotyped. High school students wear uniforms. Everyone knows who they are and what they are up to. In college, people are confused, because they don't have uniforms. They graduate and immediately find an excuse to wear a suit, even to companies with no dress code, so that everyone on the train might know where they stand in their life. They hit eighty, join my gym, and start screaming. That, or they go play pachinko. I suppose that somewhat unceremoniously brings us to what might be the main point of all this:
I DON'T LIKE PACHINKO
I don't like pachinko. I had never played it until just last year, actually. It's a pretty idiotic capsule form of the entire Japanese entertainment industry. There's this "Neon Genesis Evangelion" pachinko machine, based on the popular animated series from over ten years ago. There's a TV screen in the middle of all pachinko machines, these days. It plays video clips which, somehow, relate to the player which pegs or mechanisms have moved, so he knows how much strength to apply to rotating the cylindrical controller, with how much pressure to expel the little steel balls. As far as game design goes, it's not that incredible, because the video clips on the display screen really have absolutely nothing to do with anything aside from the animated series from which they've been extracted. Nothing about any one particular video clip deliberately says "Now the little flap on the right side is going to open."
Pachinko machines were originally strictly for amusement. Eventually, they turned into gambling devices. So the ultimate reward for playing pachinko is money. Some people are good enough at pachinko to not even need a job. Most people aren't.
Two blocks down, the street I live on runs into a highway. On the other side of the highway, visible from my living room window, stands a large pachinko parlor. Every time the automatic doors open as a customer enters or leaves, if one of the windows in my home is open, I can hear the dense Eurobeat emanating out. The volume is so atrociously high that it reaches even as far as my bedroom, late at night.
Last year, a half-dozen shops in the covered shopping street between my house and JR Koenji Station shut down all at once. A big tarp went up where the shops used to be. A month later, it was one huge pachinko parlor. I walk by that pachinko parlor every time I go to JR Koenji Station. It's so huge, and loud, right there in the middle of my trendy street. I look inside, at all the old people. After my grandfather died, my grandmother set about spending as much of his money as quickly as possible. She took cruises around the world. Good for her. What are these old people in these pachinko parlors doing? The generation gap between these people and my grandmother — between cruises around the world and zombification within a pachinko parlor — is only a decade and a half, at the most. I look at these people, and I think, where in the hell are we going?
A friend in real estate once told me that no building ever turned into a pachinko parlor or a love hotel will ever see life as anything else. As brick-and-mortar game stores, for example disappear, as everyone starts ordering all their clothing online, will this turn completely into a city of pachinko parlors and love hotels? Math, and fucking, as it were? Is that what it is? Two people have sex; ninety years later, you're breathing nicotine and just trying to spend everything as effortlessly as possible before you die.
CAN VIDEOGAMES MAKE US BETTER PEOPLE?
Stephen Totilo can corroborate when I say that I had originally planned to call this month's column "Can Videogames Make Us Better People?" [Note From Stephen: Tim speaks the truth.] Then, I saw this presentation from this year's DICE conference. There's a lot of brain-hacking going on in there. In that talk, Carnegie-Mellon University professor Jesse Schell envisions a future in which everything is game-designed. Sooner or later, everyone is going to be connected on a service that tracks everything, Unlocking Achievements in all forms of art and entertainment, every game they play or book they read logged meticulously for future generations to see. Schell says we might read a new "Star Trek" book, and then be told we've just Unlocked the Achievement of having read 500 books, and we might feel dumb that this is our 500th book. Maybe, if we know that so much of us will remain behind for other generations to inspect, we'll try being better people.
I was going to say something along the same lines, though probably with a lot more words. I was going to say that I've noticed little trends in the design of Japanese games and/or game-console software. Animal Crossing and Brain Training were extremely popular, money-making software products, though both of them had feet planted in The Real. Animal Crossing is more or less a game about communication, in which your only rewards come from doing good deeds. Brain Training is a tool to keep your mind active. These products were so successful that the certifiable geniuses at Nintendo considered, developed, released, and then reaped the benefits of such products as "My Finance Diary" and Tomodachi Collection. The latter is like Animal Crossing, only the characters are humans — Nintendo Wii Miis, actually — and thus maybe easier to relate to. The former is just a simple kind of productivity software, which you can use to keep track of how much money you spend, and on what. You can input your salary and bank account balance and all that. You can set up a budget plan and it'll tell you how much money you should spend per day. It's nothing an iPhone application couldn't do, though it was monstrously popular. Maybe it was popular because it was so well-designed. The sounds were pleasing, the friction of the pen on the DS screen felt just right (I've "played" a friend's copy).
In his presentation, Schell mentions a little tree-shaped virtual-pet-kind-of thing on the dashboard of the Toyota Prius. It grows as you save money on gas. It's not much of a "game." Though there it is. When is something like Nintendo's "Finance Diary" going to be implemented into ATMs? Well, cash will near-completely fade away, at some point in the future. In Japan, they've had these microchip-equipped cards for a decade. You charge them up at terminals in the stations. It used to be you could just use them to ride the train. You might have similar cards in your city elsewhere in the world. Though man, in Tokyo, you can use them for so much: vending machines, supermarkets, whatever. Sooner or later, you'll be able to use them everywhere. It's a great system. I'm sure if they developed easy retinal scan technology, the Japanese would slap a cute-looking eyeball mascot on the advertisements and people would be lined up to volunteer their information for the system. I'm pretty sure the "Minority Report" future will emerge well before I'm old enough to play pachinko. Will Japan evolve because of this, or will it only continue its deepening spiral into the realm of my disinterest?
Thanks to several recent developments in my life, I've realized that life is really just a game, and that I'm so dissatisfied with games (like Final Fantasy XIII) lately, because I am approaching them as games within a game. I have a "habit" of applying the "rules" of the game of life to the things I do for "fun." I might have mentioned before: I never believed in Santa Claus, et cetera. I have a "problem" stepping completely away from reality.
What I've realized, recently, is that the skeleton of rules of the "game" of "life" is just too visible here in Japan, where multiple perfunctory sentences are required to start any conversation, where you can use a certain positive verb to soften the preconceived impact of a negative verb form, where you can prove mathematically that you are a good person by drinking alongside everyone else, by being the last to go home every day, by ritualistically screaming in the middle of the street after a company party. Oh no! You messed up today! The company lost money. BONUS ROUND: At least you get the opportunity to apologize to the boss. People who can apologize well are respected! Be sure to apologize every time you pick up the phone! Miss one, and you'll lose points! Your score in this game is represented by the balance of your bank account. When you reach the goal, you have earned the right to play a game with much simpler rules.
Man, life is like the world's most boring MMORPG. If I'm going to be forced to play it, I might as well live somewhere I can get affordable groceries more suited to my lifestyle.
As usual, I'm probably over-thinking this. Maybe I'm just in the wrong country for over-thinking.
And that, basically, is what's been on my mind the past five years.
tim rogers is the editor-in-chief of Action Button Dot Net, which is a fancy way of saying he's the founder and one of three completely unpaid employees. friend his band on myspace, follow him on twitter, or email him at 108 (at) action button (dot! (net!))
Japan Mt. Fuji PIC [Flickr]
Smoking PIC [Flickr]
Bacon Sushi PIC [Flickr]