The most common email response I received to my previous column ("Japan: It's Not Funny Anymore") was a perplexed question: "Why do you still live in Japan?"
Sometimes, this question was phrased a little more loudly: "You ungrateful son of a bitch, I would kill to live in Japan." Wait: strike that "sometimes" — most of the time, the question was harsh. I replied to the chap who claimed he would kill to live in Japan with a brief message that should have illuminated his lack of open-mindedness and understanding of my precise situation. I can't remember the exact wording: "If you want to live in Japan so badly, why don't you live there?" Moving halfway around the world is not an act of some miraculous talent. It's something anyone can do, really. I also forget the exact wording of the chap's reply, though I recall it having something to do with me fucking myself. This is around where I stop replying to people on the internet.
My sweet plan was, at first, to write up a list of things I don't like about Japan, being as apocalyptic as possible in my wording. Then I would go to San Francisco for two weeks. Then, once back in Japan after two weeks in the country of my birth, I would be armed with an arsenal of clues to solve the mystery of why, exactly, I continue to live in this place.
Part of it was the mystery of being in a foreign place. I think anywhere anyone stays for too long becomes unbearable. Our genes want us to always be moving, procreating all over the place, spreading our seed. We (by which I mean "some of us") are wired to, every once in a while, get the impression that things just aren't going as well as they could be going, that we aren't making enough children or otherwise leaving enough legacy-like things behind, and we (by which I, again, mean "some of us") decide to get up and leave town.
In my case, my chosen method of procreating was the intellectual variety. I wanted to leave genetic clones of myself, intermingled with the ideas of others, all over the landscape of a place that had created many thing I respected. What I mean is, I wanted to make video games in Japan, because I had always liked video games from Japan. When I first got here, I was working a horrid dead-end job at an English school. Luckily, I already had some money, and all I wanted was a visa. I got a job as a manga artist's assistant, joined a couple of bands, floated around for a while. Everything in my life was a surprise back then. Being in Japan, really, was the best way to put myself into a situation wherein everything was a surprise. Nothing's really a surprise anymore. I went back to San Francisco, found one or two surprises, and got on the plane back to Japan thinking that nothing, really, is a surprise anymore. Maybe what happens is, you get to a point in your life and nothing is a surprise anymore. I'm grown up, it's the future, et cetera.
Back in Tokyo, rain was pouring and the temperature was in the negative Celsius. I'd gained a day going to San Francisco, and I'd lost several months coming back to Tokyo. I was in my house for precisely the amount of time it took to die and be reborn again (twelve hours) before I felt the old surprise-killer creeping back. The sound of an old woman's voice, lost on the way back home from the supermarket, screamed from loudspeakers atop power poles in the street. At glacier speed and airplane volume, she was repeating the phone number of a pachinko parlor twenty minutes' walking distance away. I might (definitely) have mentioned this in a previous column. I can't stress it enough. It's right outside my door and it's driving me literally insane. The noise — literal, figurative, societal, economical — is probably the only thing that really bothers me about life in Tokyo. In fact, the main thing I wanted to talk about in my column was the political sound trucks: they drive, slowly, around residential neighborhoods during election time, from six in the morning to five in the afternoon, with a recording repeating the last name of a political candidate — never touching on his platform or any other relevant details — at deafening volume, in hopes of making that name the one name that senile voters remember when the time comes. It sounds kind of like a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory, and I sympathize with that assessment. That doesn't stop it from also being true — and scary.
Part of the reason that I live in Japan is that I am able to afford a decent living for myself thanks to the scumminess of the general business standard. We don't have a Better Business Bureau over here; it's not uncommon for Japanese businesses to tack on extra fees, turning something that's finger-and-toe expensive into something that costs all your fingers, all your toes, and maybe one whole hand. Back when I was drifting and poor, I breathed shrilly through my teeth many times when internet cafe employees would inform me of the bad news: though the sign outside says it's 100 yen an hour, it's actually just 100 yen for ladies, and that men have to pay 200 yen an hour. Plus, you also have to pay 100 yen extra an hour for the undismissable privilege of sitting in a chair, and another 200 yen an hour for the right to indulge in the "free" drink bar. The "200 yen an hour" fee, by the way, is only applicable for the first hour. It's 300 yen for every successive hour. Also, if you stay one minute over, you have to pay for a full hour, even if that "one minute" includes the five minutes you spent waiting in line at the register. This turned a two-hour-and-fifty-six-minute stay into something you'd expect to pay 300 yen for, and instead have to pay 2,300 yen. I used to hate this shit. Now that I have found my feet, here I am celebrating the fact that no one complains about it, or anything, really.
Thinking over the above series of sentences, I feel especially bad about many of the things I wrote in my previous article. I feel like a hypocrite. I talked about how I hate the "drink ticket" system, how they charge you a cover fee to get into a venue, and then force you to pay 500 yen over the cover fee for your first drink — I got a lot of emails about that bit, always from people who missed the point. It was maybe my fault for burying the point: I wasn't complaining about the 500 yen — I was complaining about being forced to buy a drink after already paying a pretty sizable, respectable sum of money just to get into the bar. What are the chances someone would go into a bar and not drink anything? It's weird, and it's very obviously just a ploy to get more money: you pay for your ticket, and the girl or guy at the door says, "Okay, that's 4,000 yen — and you also have to pay 500 yen for a drink, or we won't let you in." She tells you this before she takes your money. Why not just raise the cover charge by 500 yen, putting the prices together, and then give the customer a ticket entitling them to a "free" drink? I mean, isn't that a much better idea? Doesn't that make the customer feel a lot better? That's what I was driving at — and right here, I am driving at the glory of being a person who thinks up such ideas in a culture that is so jaded in one direction they can't conceive of another. People think I'm a genius when I drop an idea like that. These ideas have been paying my bills.
In a way, I've been playing this culture like a piano. I've been slamming out "Flight of the Bumblebee" on this cultural piano for forever and six weeks, over here. Such a predictable cultural system lends itself well to the career of a man crude enough to just not care about people's feelings. God, how much of a slimeball do I sound like, right now? I'll admit I have liberal (and maybe weird) tastes, and that a lot of the things I said I didn't like about Japan are things that you'd think only a psychopath would rant about, though I wish to assure you that the maniacal tone was something of a stylistic choice. I was just playing around. Though I do very much hate noise (the concept, not the genre of music). More than that, maybe, I hate confrontation. Especially confrontation of the frivolous, stupid variety.
IN JAPAN, PEOPLE DON'T THREATEN PHYSICAL VIOLENCE UNLESS YOU ASK THEM VERY POLITELY
I was in downtown San Francisco for all of thirty seconds before a man near-violently confronted me. I was standing on the left side of an escalator. In Tokyo, that's the side you stand on. The escalator was completely empty. I had a big backpack and a duffel bag (I'd loaned my last suitcase to a friend two years before (luckily, he lived in San Francisco, making the trip back easier)), and I was tired from, you know, everything involving soaring 40,000 feet above the earth, all that terrifying engine noise and baby-crying. A man came chugging up the escalator with a cup of Starbucks in his hand. He stopped a step behind me, cleared his throat loudly, and exclaimed: "Do you fuckin' mind?" I turned around and looked at him. This is when I noticed he had the Starbucks in his hand. It was a Venti! He was more of a Trenta man, himself. He had a big lumberjack beard. "Oh, sorry," I said. I tried my best to scoot my things over to the right side of the escalator. I did this, three whole steps before the ride ended, and the man broke out in front of me, up onto the street.
In Japan, they'd just stand behind you, silently judging, outwardly looking very calm. At the most, you'd get an old man doing this thing where he presses his tongue to the back of his teeth and sucks air in really, really hard. Some guys just do it to clean their teeth. It's pretty easy to tell when someone is doing it to be passive-aggressive and/or illustrate disapproval of another human being. However, seeing as
IRONY BAFFLES THE TYPICAL JAPANESE PERSON,
it's very easy to do or say something so positively confounding that the person starts to hate themselves more than they hate you. Five years ago, I would have put "old people spewing the serious hate" at the very top of my "don't like" list about Japan. Now, I find it a source of never-ending hilarity. There's nothing more punk-rock than, for example, being a die-hard male feminist, or being sincerely polite to old people who hate you. Once, just last year, I was in line for the ATM, and an old woman entered the vestibule behind me. The vestibule was one of those deals with two ATMs separated by a translucent plastic wall. I was using one of the ATMs, transferring money to various places. That's what I do. This old woman stood behind me for maybe two minutes before she started clearing her throat. At one point, she said, "I'm . . . just waiting, back here." And I turned halfway and smiled. "Okay?" I said, pretending to be confused. I continued about my business. Two minutes later, she cleared her throat and spoke again: "I'm just . . . waiting, back here." I turned around again, and motioned to the other ATM. "This ATM is open, ma'am," I said. The woman made a terrible, silenced-bullet sound in her throat, turned on her heel, and walked out.
I feel like I've told this story a hundred times. Somedays, that's a story I tell with frustration; sometimes, it's a triumph.
Always a triumph is the story of the day an old man sat directly across from me on the dead-empty train at Ogikubo, first stop on the Marunouchi Line, while the train was waiting to depart. Of all the seats, he chose the one right across from me. This was a common occurrence. Old men were always choosing the seat right across from me, even when the train was empty. The reason was that they wanted to pound out a little bit of their aggression. The old men looked at me and grunted and groaned and sighed terribly. Eventually, they'd get up, take two steps forward, stand right in front of me with their crotches at my face level. They do this to girls on crowded trains all the time. They'll grip the ring right above the girl's seat and lean forward. That's usually at night, though, with the "excuse" of being drunk. These guys in the morning were definitely not drunk yet: they were wearing suits and smelling of cologne. They would stand in front of me for a second, make a couple of sounds, sigh, walk toward the next car, throw open the door, slam it shut, and just keep moving. It made me feel bad about myself for the first couple of years.
About three years ago, I came into my own, obtained a little bit more influence in one of my various workplaces than I was used to, and started experimenting with the art of interfacing on a human level with these people. That's all they wanted: they stood in front of attractive girls on the train because that was the closest they could get to talking to them without offering up precious emotional insights, or paying them money in a hostess club. These men hated me on principle; maybe they were looking for something to prove their hatred ill. I didn't know how to prove anything to the kind of human being who would do something so weird and inexplicable, so I tried something else.
Something awoke in me the day of my triumphant story: A man, probably the hundred and fifty-fifth, sat across from me grunting and clicking his tongue, staring me in the eye. I thought I was dressed pretty well that day. I felt good about myself for some reason or another. I didn't want this guy pissing in my Coca-Cola. So I leaned forward, put my hands on my knees, maintained eye contact, and spoke with the accent of a Japanese cartoon badass: "You see these glasses? It's not my fault that these glasses cost more than your suit." The expression on the old man's face was amazing. I can't even describe it. It was like a priest had just presented him incontrovertible proof that he'd be a trillionaire if he'd been raised Catholic. I'm not implying that my words had hit a soft spot or shamed him in any way, true as they might have been (the glasses had, for sure, cost at least six times as much as his suit (I rock the 24k gold up in here (I am blinged the hell out (so lonely))) — just that he had perhaps somehow made it through his entire life without ever encountering a line of human dialogue of which he had no clue in hell what to make. Then I held a fist out in front of myself, shook it furiously for about three seconds, and made my index finger pop up like a bean sprout. I then pointed in the direction of the next car. He stood up near-immediately and raced away.
Right there, I felt like, maybe, I had found my calling. How do I channel this superpower into something that benefits humankind, or at least makes me hells of rich? I decided that it might or might not involve rock and roll. Or maybe videogames. How do you turn that kind of instant social triumph into, say, an achievement in a videogame? Jason Rohrer's new game, Sleep is Death, comes close. Or maybe it comes all the way: it's a game about creativity. In the hands of a truly creative person, and in the case of a truly creative person interacting with a person they know well enough to affect emotionally, it can be a powerful tool. What about in the hands of creativity-challenged people? I find it hard (not impossible!) to believe that a game can make someone creative.
JAPAN IS VISUALLY DENSE
My eyesight is terrible. In order to compensate for my bad eyesight, my eyes have learned to move very quickly. With the help of glasses, I can see a lot of stuff pretty quickly. According to the doctors, I'm going to be blind before I'm sixty years old. Well, whatever. In the meantime, I can most certainly tell the difference between a 60hz LCD TV and a 120hz one. In Japan, I enjoy looking out train windows.
One of the first things to ever appeal to me about Japan was the closeness of products on retail shelves. The eye finds little vacancy in a Japanese retail establishments. Convenience stores are visually amazing. Nearly a decade after starting a life here, I still revel in looking out the Chuo Line window as the train slides past Kabukicho in Shinjuku. The density of neon Chinese characters and Japanese syllables is set to the exact maximum human eye tolerance level. Whereas looking at an old shopping street in Hong Kong might terrify the first-time visitor with impressions of grime, Tokyo's urban advertisement-scape manages to invoke a quiet, almost quaint awe.
It's true that Tokyo grew out of a small fishing village called Edo. One day, someone said this is the new capital of the empire, and everyone who wants to be anyone should be someone right around here. You could say that Tokyo grew accidentally, out of that fishing village mentality. This is why the streets have no names. Think about a town in the Wild West. You've got the saloon right there; you've got the inn right over there. City hall's right there; the jail is over there. Eventually, you might have another street, at which point you'd call this one "Main Street." As Tokyo grew, every street was Main Street for somebody. It'd be rude to someone invisible to give any of these streets a name. In one part of town, for example, horse masters built stables to keep their animals; horse masters new to the town naturally sought out others like themselves. Maybe they wanted communication and interaction with the like-minded. Someone would later call that whole part of town "Bakurocho," which literally means "city of horse traders," and they still call it that today. Apply the same concept of locations earning reputations and purposes to the entire megalopolis. It's fascinating to attempt to navigate this city.
I once picked up a tourist guide of Tokyo. It had been forgotten on a train. It was in English. It called Tokyo a "people-watcher's paradise." That sounds a little risque. Well, I was open-minded enough to understand. When I enter a train that's only half full of people, when I have my choice of a seat, maybe I'll sit somewhere in view of what I perceive to be the most attractive girls on the train. I don't want to begin to apologize for my doing this; it'd make me sound like more of a creep than I might actually be. I don't mean them any harm. What's wrong with wanting to be near someone you find attractive? Isn't that what "attractive" means?
I like how dressed-up people get on the weekend in Japan. "Looking attractive in public" is a fantastic hobby. I find it hard to believe that someone can be attractive and simultaneously repulsed by the idea of people finding them attractive. Sometimes you find girls who look fantastic naturally and have low enough self esteem to consider every sincere expression of interest some kind of sick troll. That's always kind of sad to see. Sometimes you find girls who look like horror movie monsters who fell down a flight of glittery stairs. They obviously find themselves attractive, and then they mistake your awed stares of "what the hell?" for genuine attraction, then act repulsed by your interest. I find that dynamic really interesting. You almost want to say something to the girl. Once, I was fortunate to date a certifiably gorgeous girl for a year. The first time we went to her apartment instead of mine, she told me to pretend I didn't know her while we were in the local 7-Eleven. The cashier was so rude to her. It was fascinating. All of the etiquette he displayed to other customers went out the window when he was dealing with her. He didn't even say "good evening" or "thank you." He was her age and not unattractive himself. People here are so hyper-used to seeing and looking at other people. It's infinitely interesting. I said in my last article that the "rules" of the "game" of "life" are boldly visible, and that it scares me. Sometimes, however, as in the case of the cashier and the gorgeous girl, it makes me think that I stand forever millimeters away from realizing something really helpful for the whole of humanity.
THE CLOYING, CHILDISH THEMES OF JAPANESE POP-CULTURE MANIFEST THEMSELVES IN EVERYDAY LIFE IN THE CUTEST WAYS
Don't get me wrong: I find modern Japanese pop-culture a swamp of some evil, terribly executed shit. I don't say this because I "hate Japan" or anything — I say it because I know for a fact that the people deserve better. They at least deserve films that are shot and edited properly — I don't care how bad the scripts are. Let's start with some decent lighting, for god's sake.
Japanese popular music usually deals with the theme of "youth." Only twice in my life have I ever heard a Japanese person scoff at the idea of a forty-year-old man singing about youth. Sixteen-year-old kids know nothing about youth. More than you don't know what you've got till it's gone, you don't know what something is until it's something else. Old people sing a lot about youth in Japan. People are always thinking about the beginnings of things. Maybe the atheo-Buddhist cultural background really helps flesh this out. The Japanese people, if not necessarily all believers, generally behold reincarnation as more or less of a "good idea." Most of the Japanese companies I respect the most got started by a couple of guys sitting around drinking, fresh out of business school, saying, "Hey, let's start a company!" "What kind of company is it going to be?" "I don't know! Let's just do it!" This "Let's just do it" mentality is great. The Japanese had that long before Nike. I said before, as a non-drinker, that I worried about the idea of Japanese businesses hinging so direly on conversations conducted during massive ritualistic alcoholic consumption. However, when night turns to day, and you overhear some guys in the office believing in some of the dumb, naive promises made while careening toward alcohol poisoning the night before, you get scared for a second, and then you wonder why the hell you aren't out there starting your own company. It makes you think that the kids who grew up being drip-fed "I'm going to be The Best!" in their daily dose of "Pokemon" on TV actually grew up believing it.
JAPAN MAKES AMAZING ROCK MUSIC
Twenty years after first hearing it, I still can't get over how much I love Japanese rock music. I will admit that the thrill was, at first, that I was hearing music in a foreign language. I've listened to music of the world, from France, Russia, Benin, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, whatever. The Japanese music is still the most fascinating for me.
Just a few days ago, on March 31st, 2010, my absolute favorite modern Japanese rock band, Yura Yura Teikoku, announced they were finished. The reason the front man offered for the break up of the band was that, since the release of the last album, he just hasn't felt like making any new songs. What a perfect reason for breaking up a band.
Japanese music since the 70s has, to an extent, revised the efforts of Western musicians. I like to think of their revisions as wiser alternate universes, explorations of other possibilities. (I feel like I'm fast approaching my monthly limit for uses of the term "alternate universe.") Japan is, literally and figuratively, another side of the world. Sometimes they do irritating things, like give you a free side of miso soup with your donut because this is Japan, and this is a donut shop in Japan, and in Japan, breakfast includes miso soup. I mean, sometimes they culturally do things to force their own angle into things that otherwise don't need it. Donuts and miso soup don't go well together, anyway. When it comes to drums, guitars, and microphones, you just can't work in miso soup.
I will shamelessly admit that one of the first times I thought I might like Japan, as a country, is when Otacon delivered the "Can love bloom on a battlefield?" speech in Metal Gear Solid. It was so fruity, and tangy, and sweet, and weird. It was random citrus dropped into a bowl of cabbage. Over a decade later, Metal Gear Solid has a little girl singing an anime theme song in the middle of the game, and I'll admit that's a little too weird for me, though maybe that's because I'm getting old. Isn't Hideo Kojima getting old, too, then? If he's getting old and I'm getting old and he's older than me and he's doing something that I think is weird, does that make him younger at heart than me? Wow, maybe. I guess this has something to do with the Japanese way of looking at things.
THE ART OF JAPANESE "CATCH COPY" FASCINATES ME
Japanese "Catch copy" is one of the world's greatest mainstream arts. I'm not sure of the evolution of the concept. It's a real modern miracle. We can't say for sure who invented the haiku, or when, just that it was at least several hundred years ago. Likewise, the history of the modern catch copy is mostly invisible. Some trace it back to the simple signs of the Edo Period, which had to appeal to the citizens' limited literacy with single, readable, middle-class sentences that hinted at some deeper story. The inspiration for the modern catch copy, at least, is pretty clear: Western advertisement copy grew shorter and shorter over the years as the vogue progressed from fabricated images and dense descriptions to less related images and terser opportunities to let the product speak for itself. What happened in Japanese advertisements is something different. The image is either very related to the product or very unrelated, and the text is either very related or very unrelated. Advertisements mix and match expectations seemingly at random. Advertisement text — or "catch copy", as they call it in Japanese — is seldom a "slogan". Japanese catch copy more of an alternate universe version of "Great Taste. Less Filling".
Shigesato Itoi, who Western gamers probably know best as the writer / director of the Mother (Earthbound) series of games, was one of the proudest pioneers of the modern art of catch-copywriting. (He's also the guy who named the Nintendo Game Boy.) Though already an essayist and novelist, Itoi often describes his true passion as the writing of sentences. As an advertisement copy-writer, he was often lauded for choosing single words to describe the striking image on a poster.
To a person as fond of artistic expression as myself, I often find the Japanese method of precisely regurgitating template conversations painfully bland. When someone like Shigesato Itoi, however, chooses a common word to go along with an uncommon photo, it's amazing. Long ago, he contributed the single word "'Yoroshiku.'" (in quotation marks, with a period at the end, just like that) to a poster of bad-ass rock-dude Eikichi Yazawa. In conversation, the word means roughly means "Nice to meet you," and though the photo on the poster showed a Yazawa who was in the midst of striking an awesome microphone pose and lighting a crowd figuratively on fire, you look at the word right there, in quotation marks, and its literal meaning, colloquial use, and presentation (with quotation marks and a period) instantly congeal and ferment to form this brand-new kind of impression. This ferocious rock-man right here is fighting for his life against the enemies of rock and roll, and simultaneously welcoming you (and everyone else like you) with a casual "''Sup.'"
The copy for the advertisement for Mother 2 was "Otona mo kodomo mo, oneesan mo" — "Adult[s] and child[ren], and [your] big sister[s] [too]". You look at these little sentence-fragments, and you absorb something, or you absorb something else.
Probably Itoi's most famous catch copy was for the poster of the Hayao Miyazaki film "Kiki's Delivery Service". The main character gazes reminiscingly out a bakery window. In quotation marks are the words "I was depressed [a little bit]; I'm okay [now]".
This sort of thing amazes me. When I first came to Japan, I saw advertisements and admired the placement and size of the text. I wondered what the text was saying, and wondered whether my own guesses were better or worse. Eventually, I learned that my own imagination actually was part of the equation. The art has continued to fascinate me.
Sadly, in modern times, the art is often mistreated. Our of sheer morbid interest I have been counting the number of television series, western films, videogames, or comics that use the catch copy "Bouken ga, hajimaru" — "The adventure[;] begins". We're up to 88 in nine years. It's a little embarrassing. Still, every once in a while, something delightful comes out of nowhere and I grin so huge that someone gets out their phone to call the cops, thinking that no one so happy-looking couldn't possibly not be a psychopath or a drug addict.
While we're on the subject:
JAPANESE TELEVISION COMMERCIALS ARE OCCASIONALLY THE HIGHEST FORM OF ART ON EARTH
This isn't hyperbole. I'm being completely honest.
Some day, some brilliant filmmaker will make a movie wherein Aya Matsuura plays the role of a single young woman who, an instant before her phone rings, spills a one-pound bag of M&Ms all over her living room floor. During the duration of a ninety-minute real-time telephone conversation with her mother, she will provide only sounds of confirmation or dismissal as she tries to pick up every M&M from the floor. At one point, the barely audible sound of her mother's voice halts. Then we hear a terse question, to which she replies with a beat, and then, "I'm just . . . trying to pick up these M&Ms." A silence. Then the mother begins speaking again. Eventually, the conversation ends, and the movie ends.
I guess I've managed to completely kill my train of thought. This is where we talk about how
IN JAPAN, YOU DON'T WEAR SHOES AT HOME
I remember when I was four years old, and we had neighbors from India. My mom remarked, once, "I don't understand those people. The mother asked me to take my shoes off inside the house!" I remember hearing that and thinking, "Why the hell would you not take your shoes off at home?" Maybe I was a little OCD, or a germophobe in training. It certainly doesn't take a baby Einstein to recognize that dirt is dirty, and shoes are covered in dirt, and the carpet of people who wear shoes indoors is a filthy, matted mess. Good lord, I can remember my little (big) brother wearing shoes in his bed. How fucking sick is that? What is wrong with cultures that wear shoes in bed? I bet George W. Bush wore shoes in the White House bed every night. Think about that shit. That's weird as hell.
I'm not going to lie: one of the reasons I came to live in Japan was absolutely, totally because they are notorious for never wearing shoes inside the house. You just don't be wearing shoes in your house; I don't care who you are. Like, I am so in approval of the idea of taking your shoes off in the damn house that I can hardly write a coherent sentence explaining why I believe in this. It's just like, if you don't agree, there's something wrong with you. How dare you wear shoes in your home and still joke about Korean people eating dogs. God! It's not like you can walk into a McDonald's in Korea and order a fucking McDogBurger. At least they take their shoes off in the house in Korea. (They also have really neat heating-pad floors.)
Of course, none of this really matters so much when you consider that the ground in Tokyo is, very often, cleaner than the carpet in an American home.
JAPANESE MASS TRANSIT IS FANTASTIC
Why the hell do they put carpets on the BART trains in San Francisco? That's so weird. The carpets get so dirty. And the lighting is awful. The Tokyo Metro has pretty annoying announcements running pretty much non-stop, informing you to be sure to hold onto something if you're pregnant, or whatever, though at least they have nice clean floors which are pre-painted the color that will look the least terrible once it's been walked all over with people's filthy shoes. Also, Tokyo has the Yamanote Line, which basically runs in a loop. You can take a nap, read a book, or people-watch on that thing for hours and feel adequately convinced that you got out of the house.
JAPANESE CONVENIENT STORES AND VENDING MACHINES ARE FANTASTIC
Some Western critics deride Japanese RPGs like Blue Dragon for being too easy, or having too many save points. Well, Japan is a world with a lot of save points. You only need to be thinking about drinking a hot can of coffee for twenty seconds before the opportunity to purchase one floats up before your eyes, electrically aflame in the night. Now that I think about it, maybe the (pretty terrible, jarring, weird) mechanic wherein you pause the game to purchase ammunition from a menu in Metal Gear Solid 4 had something (psychologically) to do with vending machines.
JAPANESE TOILETS ARE GREAT
Why has the heated toilet seat not caught on anywhere outside Japan? I was back in America not four hours before I started to miss heated toilet seats. Maybe it's because people outside Japan don't like to think about toilets, or using toilets. Heated toilet seats are great.
I'll admit that some toilets in Japan try too hard. For example, they've got these toilets where the lid opens automatically so you don't have to touch it. I guess that's okay, when it's button-activated. Sometimes, though, it's proximity-activated. And sometimes those lasers malfunction. Also, sometimes, you run into the situation where the only public restroom is equipped exclusively with the hole-in-the-ground style toilet, the kind more fit for a dog than for a human. Excretion is a common (sometimes-serious, sometimes-humorous) conversation topic in Japan, and I often seize the opportunity to ask someone if they prefer the squat toilet to the western-style toilet. I've never met a single person who prefers the squat-style toilet. Every once in a while, though, someone rattles off the list of good things about squat toilets: you don't have to touch your skin to the toilet, and the squatting position forces a lower, uhm, more spread-out posture, minimizing the amount of, uhh, cleanup necessary afterward. I guess these are pretty good reasons, though I can't get behind them.
The first time I used one of the squat toilets, I was quickly and violently shocked with how weak I had become. I couldn't keep my knees bent and my hips lowered more than ten seconds without feeling the burning need to put palms against the filthy concrete. I had a miserable experience. One day, many months later, I found myself forced into such a toilet again, and finished the job without fracturing anything. It made me feel like I'd been someplace. I'm not about to praise these toilets, though I can say that I do understand them. The warm toilet seats, however, are the real star.
Westerners say that a man in his twenties brags about the women he's had sexual intercourse with; a man in his forties brags about the meals he's eaten; a man in his sixties brags about the bowel movements he's had. In other words, a man in his twenties brags about what he's put himself into; a man in his forties brags about what he's put into himself; a man in his sixties brags about what he's left behind. His legacy. What's taboo about thinking about your legacy in, say, your twenties? For all their rigorous observance of customs and politeness, the Japanese sure do talk in a fascinating style about pooping. Over lunch with Japanese corporate executives, I was often privy to some excellent discussions of which foods produced the best quality and consistency of excrement.
I eventually developed an appreciation of the art myself. This kind of conversation re: dumping among corporate professionals is just the right level of liberality I require in a culture. The toilet can be the source of a great feeling of accomplishment. Where is this thrill in videogames? Videogames are so often about eating and consuming, and never about pooping. Videogame characters are, more often than not, disembodied, bottomless stomachs.
Recent Japanese videogames like Dead Rising have used toilets as save points. No More Heroes director Goichi Suda once likened the game development process to the somewhat-accidental, somewhat-calculated manufacture of excrement. Where is the concept of excreting in a game?
JAPANESE SHOWERS ARE GREAT
Being in America for a day reminded me of how much better Japanese showers are. In the States, if I tell someone that their shower sucks and that their hot water cut out before I could even finish washing my hair, they always — always — reply "Well, it's never a problem for me." It's never a problem for them because they're not used to showering in situations of impeccable, endless hot water of fantastic, gingivitis-killing pressure. My shower in Japan will beat the shit out of your skin. It's fantastic.
The Japanese have enjoyed bathing for a long time. Maybe the prevalence of natural hot springs spoiled the Japanese, from centuries ago, to the idea of bountiful, endless hot water. When the Westerners presented the concept of the water heater, the Japanese were like, "Wait, you mean, you can use up all of the hot water? What the fuck is that shit? We're going to make our own thing, thanks." Then they developed this kooky system of pipes where an actual gas flame heats the water as it funnels into a thin pipe before dumping into some efficient little pressure chamber that produces the best kind of pain.
The Japanese custom of taking a bath is the right kind of obsession: you rinse yourself with a shower, washing your hair and face and toenails and what-have-you, before entering the pristine bathwater, where all you do is soak, slowly. You close your eyes and relax. In the West, a relaxing bath is the thing of kooky moms who take in too much advertising during soap operas. In Japan, it's something everyone does. The bathtub is a little private capsule. You wish you could live in there, sometimes. Well, I do, anyway. Maybe everyone does.
Getting clean is a fascinating part of the daily routine. It's almost a religion in itself. I mentioned passive-aggression in my list of frustrations with Japan. I mentioned how, on a rainy day, sometimes people will smash your umbrella with theirs for no good reason, and it might make you want to smash someone else's umbrella with yours. This is a chain of aggression, and it has to end somewhere. Maybe it ends in the bathtub, before bed. If you take a bath in a good public bathhouse, sometimes the water is so hot you feel scared when you get out. Outside, though it might be the dead of winter, you feel invincible without even a sweater. You go home and drink a whole liter of ice-cold water. You go to bed feeling like you've been someplace. Maybe you have.
I LOVE OLD JAPANESE COMICS
I love old Japanese comics like Dragon Ball, Fist of the North Star, and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. Sometimes, I find other people who do, too, and we get along just fine.
JAPAN LOVES DRAGON QUEST, AND SO DO I
I almost want to say that Dragon Quest is my favorite thing about Japan. They are humble little games. The creator, Yuji Horii, is a man who you feel like you can trust. I've mentioned this example before: when you first approach a slot machine in Dragon Quest V on the Super Famicom, you win on your first pull. Casinos can't do this in real life. A videogame, however, is a simulated world, and the game does not lose when the player wins. Dragon Quest games show you things that you can't do, right from the very beginning. Eventually, you can do them. If you rotate the camera in the first castle of Dragon Quest VII, you can see a door behind the main stairs. Try to open it, and it says you don't have the right key. It'll tell you this no matter what key you bring. Eventually, when you bring the key you find in the final dungeon, you can get in. I like this kind of thing. It feels like the game is reading your mind, while simultaneously writing your mind. You get into a real comfortable groove. You feel like you own the world and all the characters in it. Dragon Quest is the joy of taking a tour of a brand-new home, with intent to buy.
I think leveling up a character in the first Dragon Quest is an experience that positively impacted more people than it negatively impacted. Your first time, you'll be out there for hours, only for the promise of a virtual copper sword. You don't even need the copper sword to beat the first dungeon. You can beat it with just the club, which only costs 60 gold. However, if you want to make absolutely sure, you can save up 180 gold for the copper sword. If you just get the club and tough it out, you can save up enough money for the copper sword far more quickly than you could have otherwise. It's a brilliant little personality test.
Modern Japanese games have over-emphasized the finer elements of the experience, and missed the big picture. Kids grow up, these days, knowing exactly which attacks of which Pokemon take out other Pokemon most efficiently. Each conflict in a Pokemon game is too wrapped up in its own logistics. Dragon Quest was always about the life experience training. Fighting a battle is like sending an important email at work. Winning a battle is like giving a presentation at a meeting. Leveling up is like getting paid. Beating a boss is like getting a promotion. Turning the game off is like . . . turning the game off. Then you go to bed. Finally finding the key that opens that door in the very beginning of the game is like taking a hot bath.
Shigesato Itoi once said that a good game should be like a loving wife (or a prostitute), standing behind you, rubbing your shoulders, telling you you're great. I'm used to reading between the words with Itoi, and I'm not sure I agree with his implication that no one anywhere is actually great. It's a desolate philosophy from a strictly game-design standpoint, because you ignore the possibility that a game could make a person great.
Last month at GDC I attended a lecture about a game that seeks to prevent the spread of HIV among young people. How do you make such a game? The lecturer didn't have a theory; she was going to let the data help her form a strategy. Thinking back on it, I'm even further engaged to know that the project was started without a clue about the game design, that the goal of the project was first and foremost.
In my article, I theorized that the behaviors videogames teach us through abstract means might actually give rise to real-life obsessions or real-life healthy fastidiousness. I wasn't joking when I said that the original Legend of Zelda might have made me a vegetarian. I particularly like the example of lighting four torches to open a door in a Zelda game: You get to a point in the game where you have a lantern that can light torches, you walk down a long corridor, you eventually come to four torches and a locked door. The first time this happens, immediately, something changes inside your brain: Without committing it to words, you know that if you light those four torches, the door will open. You know this, because this is the only thing you "can" "do" in this room. On a bad day, I would say that games like Zelda are more likely to turn children into kleptomaniacs than games like Grand Theft Auto are likely to turn children into car thieves, because Grand Theft Auto is just bizarrely "real" enough to come across as utterly fake.
Then there's the case of Final Fantasy VI; if you've read the manual, you'll understand that pressing the "A" button in front of an object will allow you to investigate that object. You'll naturally want to investigate the most suspicious objects. The trick is that the world is only a simulation, so by rights everything is suspicious. Some of the first outstanding objects you see are clocks. The first one you search gives you an elixir, a super-valuable medicine that you will never be able to buy in a store. You continue to search clocks throughout the game. Sometimes they give you elixirs, sometimes they don't. I've never personally met a player who actually used the elixirs in Final Fantasy VI. Now, as an adult, I keep a six-year-old can of Coca-Cola in my refrigerator, "The Emergency Coke," to remind me of the time when I was barely making ends meet. That Coke is to be drunk only in an "emergency/" By my current philosophy, such an "emergency" is impossible. I will never drink the Coke. I feel like I can't be the only person who does things like this.
What I think I'm trying to stumble upon is that games can make us different kinds of people. Maybe the game designers of the world could try to more articulately control the type of person their game makes people become?
And then, when I was in college, I started playing Mysterious Dungeon games. I first encountered them as "Roguelikes", as in, games that were "like" "Rogue." I encountered Nethack, was intrigued, and found Shiren The Wanderer: Mysterious Dungeon 2, a Japanese game that was just about Final Fantasy to Nethack's Ultima. Shiren's developer, Chun Soft, was undoubtedly a group of people who knew exactly what they were doing, what they wanted to do. They had a real philosophy, one that they probably never told anyone about. The idea of a Mysterious Dungeon game is that you are trying to get through a vast dungeon. There's some cinematic reward at the end. The dungeon changes every time. If you die, you have to start everything completely over. Sometimes, you encounter a courier who is on his way back to the village. You can give him an item to take back. The next time you die, you'll be able to retrieve your item for your next trip into the dungeon — or else leave it there, in anticipation of a future death. When played with a really bad head cold, these games give birth to terribly peaceful feelings. Under the influence of the right cough syrup, Shiren can make you understand the origins of the universe, if only briefly.
TOKYO IS: LEVEL DESIGN
The origin of the universe is basically that everything everywhere is an accident. Rock and roll, cuisine, et cetera. Tokyo grew as an accident, for example. It's a fantastic accident. If it were a videogame, I'd give it high marks for level design and graphics. A couple of radio shops opened close to one another, for whatever reason, and decades later, we have Akihabara, the world's Las Vegas of Electronics. You need literally years of intensive training to be a mailman in Tokyo. Prefectures are divided up into metropolitan areas, and then into cities, and then wards. Each ward has sections, and each section has sub-sections, and then blocks. The buildings in each block are numbered, though number 21 might appear sandwiched between numbers 7 and 16. The iPhone's GPS function isn't sharp enough to be helpful on a pedestrian level. You're on your own. You might have to ask police officers where to go.
Nothing in Tokyo is without reason. You can figure out why an adult movie theater exists next door to a karaoke parlor without having to trace more than three degrees of separation. You can see a pachinko parlor in your friend's hometown, hear that seven stores used to stand in its place, hear that one of them was a dry cleaner's and that your friend doesn't remember what the other six were, and more or less get the idea. I've noticed chunks of the city dying off and becoming pachinko parlors. I've noticed tacky male touts for hostess clubs crowding my quaint little street at night. I can tell that the Mysterious Dungeon is shifting.
All of the Japanese games I've grown up loving — games like Landstalker, Ranger-X, Castlevania Bloodlines, Monster World IV, the entire canon of Treasure — more or less grew as accidents. Some people had an idea, and they just pushed through with it, and made the damn thing. Like Dragon Quest, the congeniality of these games is undeniable. Modern games try to be leaders of the free world, or else pro athletes or supermodels; games back then were content winding up as a nice old dude who can recommend a good curry shop or public toilet within five minutes' walking distance of wherever you are when you take the phone out of your pocket and dial his number.
They have these shows on TV in Tokyo, where a guy just gets off a train at a "random" stop, and then proceeds to take a walk into "random" businesses. I am aware of maybe a dozen and a half such shows set in Tokyo alone, and I don't think they ever run out of material.
I enjoy the jargon of Tokyo. I enjoy knowing where things are. For the longest time, I enjoyed finding where things were. Now that I know where stuff is, I suppose the sense of adventure has faded. Oh, well. The Tokyo I knew nothing about is, of course, more fascinating than the Tokyo I know everything about. That's not a problem: Every once in a while, I try to get lost. I usually do this while running. Sometimes, I really do succeed. If I turn a direction I've never turned at a given intersection and run for a half an hour in any direction, I eventually find that Tokyo I'd maybe thought had vanished. I think this is what Mysterious Dungeon games are all about: Presenting us seemingly infinite alternate universes and possibilities. Yuji Horii once told me that old Japanese department stores such as the labyrinthine Broadway in Nakano inspired the dungeons in the old Dragon Quest games. Maybe the scary vastness of Tokyo itself inspired the Mysterious Dungeons.
RUNNING: THE VIDEOGAME
In Japan, you're expected to obey a certain code of manners in public. I started to get the hint, after a while, that looking good and being not fat were maybe "polite" things to do. I started running a lot. At first I had no idea what I was doing. I'd been a runner long ago, before a terrible hernia-related incident. It was torture forcing myself back into that habit. To get [back] into running, you have to start by running a minute, then walking a minute, then running a minute, et cetera. You repeat this for a half an hour. Eventually you're running three minutes and walking one minute, and later running three minutes and walking thirty seconds, and later just running thirty minutes straight through. Then a whole tree of choices opens before you. You can try to run longer. You can try to run farther. You can try to run faster. You can't do all three at once, though you can try to do two at once. You can fail a lot, or you can set yourself up mentally so that failure is impossible, that as long as you meet a specific quota, you've succeeded. Nike and Apple have this pedometer that tells you how far you've run. These days, you can even have it automatically Tweet your run statistics to Twitter. As a person who prefers no heads-up displays in videogames, I would rather judge the success of my run by how I feel when I'm finished.
Every once in a while, I give myself a boss fight. Just two days before sitting down to write this, I ran two miles in ten minutes [and four seconds]. My dad would be so proud of me. That's like doing 60 damage per hit in Dragon Quest, buying a new weapon, and then doing 200 damage per hit. The world record is two miles in seven minutes and 58.61 seconds. I will (probably) never break this record. I don't mind that so much. I'll keep trying. By "keep trying," I don't mean mindlessly run all day every day. I'll eat good food; I'll experiment with my weight training routines. I'll run just enough to get stronger. Ultimately, all I want is to look good. My definition of looking good might change as often as someone releases the next big PC graphics card.
One of the thought experiments I always present to my students (who don't exist) at my game design workshops (which also don't exist) is that of how to make a videogame out of the sport of running. When I played Grand Theft Auto III for the first time, all my about-everything-complaining self could say was that the cars felt like gliding a mouse cursor over a computer desktop. When I first played Animal Crossing, I wished that the simple act of moving the character would be magical and amazing, at least as amazing as it was to see Super Mario skid to a stop for the first time, or the first time you turned a television on by pointing the remote control at a mirror. To this day, I always plug my controller into my PS3 or Xbox 360, because I can't help perceiving the benefit of some hard connection between the controller and the console. It's mostly mental, though I feel a powerful friction when playing games with a wired controller. I feel like I really own them while I'm playing them. I guess this is the same as people saying that red M&Ms taste different. This is a hard thing to articulate, though I really feel that friction when running in Tokyo.
I once wondered, about Fight Night 4, why you'd make a videogame about boxing, much less a hyper-realistic one, when you could make a videogame about more complicated, abstracted sports and be perceived as infinitely more successful. Boxing is a scientific simulation of a fist-duel to the death. When you make a simulation of a simulation, you introduce a new layer of suspension of disbelief. If you're going to make a game about a dude punching a dude, you might as well let the dudes throw fireballs of spirit energy at one another. From a technical standpoint, of course, I understand the draw of continually polishing a game based on boxing. And I'd understand the draw of making a game based on running. Just what would it accomplish?
Existing in the world is something of an MMORPG. Maybe I've been over this too many times. I think of running as a perfect battle system. It's the most mindless, easiest way to show yourself where exactly you are in the Game of Life as represented by the criteria of physical fitness. You run until you hit the figurative wall; at that point, you start to think of some crazy shit. Everything in the universe makes sense, at that point. Why would you need to make a game out of this, when you can just do it in real life? This doesn't invalidate my desire for delicious friction in every action I take in a game, whether it's navigating a menu, or shooting a guy in the neck, of course. I just mean that maybe I've come around to the point of seeing why some people think my "Running: The Videogame" idea is a stupid experiment. Even Canabalt requires you to jump, et cetera.
Interlude: Get Bonus Episode One, by Tim Rogers and Robert Pelloni
THE LIFE OF GAME
I've asked, twice now, in these columns, if videogames can make us better people. I am certain they can. I'm hard at work thinking of the ways they can, though I must apologize when I say that my company's first game is just going to be a stupid-dumb action thing with what I think is something of a neat mechanical gimmick and a presentational flair. I want to start by following the lead of the game studio Treasure, who are most definitely one of my favorite things about Japan. They do what they want, and they don't care for riches, fame, fortune, or glory. Also, they make games with clean names, ignorable plots, sparkling presentations, and fascinating game mechanics.
I was having a discussion with Action Button Entertainment co-founder Robert "Bob's Game" Pelloni the other day about Facebook games. He said we might not be able to "get on board" "The Facebook Game Money Train." Around this time, we started playing Farmville. I guess it's a nice enough game. You feel like you're doing something; you share things with people. Maybe it's not my thing, because I would rather be playing something with guns. We talked about the possibility of making some in-browser game that would appeal to the "hardcore" gamers as well. Maybe it'd have some action, or maybe it'd just be like Farmville with better menus. We (silently) concluded that, maybe, the "hardcore" gamers are people who use games for a specific purpose of entertainment, and would rather stimulate the brain-parts that Farmville stimulates by doing something else, like lifting weights or watching cooking shows on television. I'll tell you what, though — according to Facebook, Farmville has 82 million monthly users. That's insane. That makes it is, empirically, the most popular game of all time. This got me to thinking how the future really isn't about Facebook games or social games or casual games so much as it really is about having machines in place to count literally everything. In Japan we have train passes that can be used to board train — or to buy drinks from vending machines or convenient stores. Japanese Vending machines and convenient stores are fantastic (and convenient). Eventually, you're here for long enough, and you're spoiled to the point of throwing a tantrum when you can't find a vending machine with your favorite variety of coffee within thirty seconds. Convenient stores are power-ups.
The future is making life like a game. Taking that iPod pedometer and applying it to everything, all over the place. Now I think about the Nintendo Vitality Sensor: I will throw a half a shit-fit if Nintendo announces that it's required for the next Zelda, and that Link's energy will refill as your heart rate increases. However, I also think this is the right idea, the zygote of some far-future technology that informs us, based on countless well-researched principles, statistical facts, and theories, near-precisely how much longer we have to live (bar a terrible accident) — it could be a reality equivalent of the game concept of the life meter. I always prefer a transparent UI in games, because, as I say, "Life doesn't have a life meter." Well, what if it did?
A couple of weeks ago, in the dead of the night, a middle-aged woman fell off her bicycle right in front of my apartment. She lay in the middle of the street, screaming like someone was cutting her. I put up with it for five minutes before going downstairs. I tried to be nice to the woman. It was freezing out there. It didn't work. Some girl came by and offered help. Coincidentally, a friend of mine showed up and also offered to help. We were all trying to get this lady out of the street. It was maybe three in the morning. I don't remember what time it was. I was tired. The woman kept laughing and giggling. She was drunk as a fourteen-dollar-and-twenty-three-cent bill. Some guy came walking in our direction, with a 7-eleven bag in hand. I was standing maybe twenty feet away from the cackling old woman and the girl who was trying to help her. This guy came up to me with his index finger raised to his lips. "I'm not in bed, and obviously you aren't, either, so I know this isn't as big a problem for you and me, though you know, some people are trying to sleep."
I can hardly explain how suddenly frustrated I was. "You hear some noise in the street and you immediately assume that I have something to do with it? Who the fuck are you, man?"
"I'm not sure what you mean," the guy went on; "just try to keep the noise down."
"I'm not the one making the noise, asshole," I said.
"All I'm saying," the guy continued, his tone inexplicable, "is that there are people sleeping in the neighborhood, and that maybe you should think about that". The guy turned to go into his apartment building — its door directly across the ten-foot-wide-street from mine.
"Holy shit!" I screamed, "a rat!" The man dropped his 7-eleven bag, started jumping up and down, comically patting his clothing. "Where? Where?" I took two steps toward him, extended my index finger, hovered it an inch from his nose. "Right here." The man didn't know what to make of that. Neither did I. He turned away again. "Oh, hey, kid," I said (this guy was maybe ten years older than me), "you forgot something!" He turned around. I reached into my pocket, and withdrew my hand immediately, brandishing a middle finger. The guy scoffed, and turned around. "Do you know what this is?" I said to the guy as he fumbled with the combination lock number pad outside his apartment lobby. "It's a human finger!" The man actually laughed.
The drunk woman was group-hugging the girl, my friend, and another girl who had come by, forcing them to touch one another's hands. She claimed that one of the girls' hands was too cold, that it was a sign of some terrible sadness, or disease. "Feel this hand! Feel this! Can you feel how cold this hand is?" It was frigid out there. I shouldn't have gone out in a tank top.
What the hell was happening, here in The World? Whatever it was, it was entertainment of an intangible quality. None of those people out there were necessarily real. I might never see any of them ever again, and if I do, what a miracle that'll be.
On the way upstairs, I thought about these numbers I'd heard of a long time ago, that every time you take a sip of beer, you lose a hundred brain cells, or that every time you sneeze you lose a couple dozen brain cells. How many times must you repeat either of these actions, like so many Dragon Quest Slime-slayings, before you start to notice a diminished mental capacity? I understand this is a ridiculous question. Maybe the far-future Nintendo Vitality Sensor will keep a running tally of exactly how many brain cells you have left. Maybe, at the end of the day, all of us die by sneezing.
Upstairs, later, Bob was taking a break from genius game development to look at his Facebook. He'd just added some people he used to know a long time ago. "This is making me sad," he said. "Why?" "Because I know I'm not going to see these people again for a long, long time." Later, in the bathtub on this surprisingly frigid, gray, rainy Sunday morning in April, I thought about pretty much the exact opposite thing.