As someone who has as-of-yet not visited Japan, I still imagine it is a place where cutting-edge game development technology is lurking around every corner - stuff so far beyond what we have in the U.S. that we look like cavemen in comparison. Apparently my imagination is a little bit off, as according to Konami sound director Akira Yamaoka, Japan is falling behind. In an interview with Gamasutra (originally printed in expurgated form in Game Developer Magazine), Yamaoka touches on the differences he's noticed while working with California's The Collective on Silent Hill 5.
There's a huge gap, actually. They're very advanced. I'm Japanese, and I think this is not just with Silent Hill but with the whole of the industry — I look at what American developers are doing and I think wow... Japan is in trouble."
Later he explains why he thinks his country is falling behind on the game development front, explaining that the nature of the publisher / developer relationship in Japan as well as low salaries contribute to games that need to be created fast and cheap, stifling innovation in the industry - much like we've feared would happen here for years.
So you've got pressure on these people to perform like they did when they were 20, and it's just not possible. I look at a game magazine, and I see interviews with the "important creators," like Mr. Sakaguchi. He's a great game creator, but he's not young. And I don't see many young game creators in Japan. Then I look at the west, and I see all these young guys coming up so fast, it's just amazing.
He raises a very good point, doesn't he? Think of our favorite Japanese developers. Miyamoto. Sakaguchi. Kojima. Not exactly Spring chickens.
On top of that, Yamaoka explains that a lot of the tools and drivers they need to create more technologically advanced games are in English, adding translation problems even to games that are only seeing release in Japan.
Aside from shattering my ill-founded illusions about the state of Japanese game development, the interview also touches on working on the Silent Hill move, interactive music in video games, Yamaoka's CD iFuturelist, and his own musical tastes (woo PJ Harvey!)
Yamaoka Talks Silent Hill 5, Japanese Game Development 'In Trouble' [Gamasutra]