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Gaming in Japan: An Odyssey
by J. Andrew Kitkowski
The first part of a long series, examining the Japanese gaming experience from all possible angles
Part One: The Landing
Over the next few issues of PTGPTB, I'm going to address roleplaying and RPGs in Japan. This month lays the backdrop of my first landing and early experiences in Japan. Throughout the series, I'm going to look at issues as varied as gaming conventions, the history of Japanese RPGs, Japanese influences and unique contributions to the industry, and how this all relates to us. Finally, I'm going to tell more than a few stories about my personal experiences with roleplaying in Japan.
So it came to pass that in the fall of 1994 I headed to Tokyo to learn Japanese, broaden my cultural horizons, and meet cute Japanese girls. I won't comment further on the order in which I pursued the above. I ended up living with a homestay family a little outside of Tokyo in a cozy little town called Tamagawajousui. The names of the towns aren't really significant, but their lengths were - it took me weeks before I could say either without stuttering, twitching, or combining them into one epic jumble of confusing super-syllables. (Try saying Higashiyamatoshinotamagawajousui five times fast...or just once.)
I was in Japan for about four days before I decided that it was time to find some Japanese RPGs. The first two days I spent sleeping, of course; jet lag never hit me so hard in all my life. Anyway, I wandered around the town and checked at local bookstores - I found dirty magazines, cute stationery, and even tons of video games (at a bookstore!), but no sign of any RPGs. The only books that were in the "games" section of any bookstore that I visited, of course, were guidebooks for console video games and RPGs like Final Fantasy. It wasn't until much later that I came to the understanding that very few, if any, RPGs exist in Japan. No one I met had ever heard of RPGs, much less seen or even played them. Some three weeks later school began, and I had all but given up my search.
For the next six months I went to school at Sophia University in downtown Tokyo, a school famous for being in the top five Ivy League schools of Japan, and for being started and largely run by Jesuits. When Japanese people hear that you've been to Sophia, they give you a level of respect and admiration - it's a very hard school for Japanese to get into. The thing about Japanese colleges though, especially Ivy League schools like Sophia, is that they are unparalleled party grounds for the privileged. A clear majority of Sophia students, like most college students, spend their time goofing off, joining clubs, and partying HARD.
The most important day (some may say only important day) for Sophia is Career Day. On Career Day corporate and government recruiters come to campus and pretty much guarantee everyone jobs. Any other day of the year is like any other: fully 50-80% of the class is partying in Shinjuku or Shibuya with friends, and will only attend class on test days. Thus, school clubs form the primary motivation for attendance and only significant social outlet for Japanese college students.
This sets the background for the start of my story. After a few days of settling into the classroom environment, I decided to head out to Hoffman Hall to join a club or two with Real Japanese People (many foreigners, uncomfortable with their Japanese and not wanting to stand out, often stuck to foreigner-dominated clubs or clubs, like the “Big Aikido Club”. At the time, with my blue hair and earrings, I was going to stand out anyway, so I figured I might as well do something fun while sticking out). Hoffman Hall is a remade dorm about 2 times larger than the campus library, and all it does is house clubs. Over 120 clubs, actually, including ballroom dance, ballet, four American football teams, art clubs, some twenty martial arts clubs... the list goes on and on. I had my eyes set on one in particular that was listed in the guidebook- A club called "Science Fantastica”. The description in the guidebook was short and sweet, if Japanese: “A club for SF literature and creative writing"
To make a long story short, I joined this small, male dominated and rather geeky (like me) club. Their function, as was explained to me by the Eternally Nasal Yasuhiro (the primary English speaker of the group), was to read and comment on SF literature, and to once a year release a compilation journal of short stories that everyone writes. Their real function, which I found out quickly, was to spend the days playing Neo-Geo Samurai Showdown 2 (the one with the rat-girl who throws boomerangs) and the nights drinking at bars all over Tokyo.
I have a lot to thank this club for. They showed me, the only foreigner to ever join their club, a great time in Japan. They also introduced me to A Particular Store, detailed further below, for which I am eternally grateful.
By a stroke of luck, this Science Fantastica Club had a number of members that played RPGs- and played them regularly. I was shocked speechless that I had found a group of Japanese roleplayers, and cared not that I had been in the club for a month before they were even mentioned. As it turned out, RPGs were the third "secret", and real function of this club (behind video games and carousing). That night, I was dragged off to another party at a tavern in the Kabukicho (Red Light District), where we all talked about RPGs- They invited me to come play on Saturday afternoons. I was so happy that I could just puke!... which I did, in some random alley as afterwards we stumble-stepped towards the Shinjuku West Side. Here, my experience in Japan would be forever altered by a store that shared the same name as a classic Beatles song.
Yellow Submarine: the only major hobby chain store that sells RPGs in Japan. There are currently only about 7 stores scattered across Japan (Japan being roughly the size of the US state of Montana), with the largest and most well stocked, RPG-wise, being the store on Shinjuku's West Side. By American standards, the store is pretty small, but for us RPG-starved souls in Japan, Shinjuku's Yellow Sub is synonymous with The Only Real Place to Get Games, Foreign or Otherwise.
I was invited by my new friends to my first Japanese RPG session. Unfortunately, they were only held on Saturday mornings/afternoons, and school was a 1.5 hour train ride plus two 20-minute walks away from home. After spending the entire week studying Japanese for two hours and then doing three more hours of homework every night, waking up on Saturday before noon required my host mother to beat me down with a broom handle...after letting an alarm go off for twenty minutes straight, it's what some kindly host families do to make sure you're still alive. I also didn't feel like I had enough ability in Japanese to participate, which was pretty much the truth . So it was another month before I managed to head down to campus to watch an RPG session.
There were six people playing, three of them whom I had never seen before. Judging by their smell, and by the fact that one of them was androgynous (later I realised by the high voice that it was female), I realized that I had entered a Hard Core gaming session. They were playing the generic fantasy game "Sword World", probably one of the most famous RPGs in Japan - essentially “AD&D Lite”. Unfortunately, due to equal amounts of personal frustration with my Japanese ability as well as unease with gaming with people who I hardly knew but smelled quite a bit, I gave up the idea of playing and merely watched from a (safe) distance.
I read the Sword World handbook, which I didn't really understand too much (Kanji- The convoluted Chinese characters that are used in Japanese - were and still are a source of "itchiness" for me). I figured that I'd wait a few more months before I tried to play again. While they were more than willing to help me out with language difficulties, I was still back in my "I must be Dra-MATIC!" RPG stage, and (feel free to add the standard “French Aristocratic Madam” accent to the following) one simply couldn't bear to play a character that one couldn't make sufficiently dramatic enough.
So I never ended up gaming with them, but that's ok - they were much better at drinking and playing video games, and it was roughly the same time that I met Satoru and Asakusa, who would forever change my Japanese experience.
Remember my three reasons for going to Japan?
So I met this girl a few weeks into my stay. I met her, a DJ, while I was dancing at a street party at Yoyogi-koen Park. Over the next few months of our peculiar friendship (ahem) she taught me everything that I needed to get me started as a decent techno/hip hop DJ. Sometimes when she was DJing on the street I would show up and pass out candy to the people who came to dance.
It just so happened that a friend of a friend of a friend of hers, a small strange college student, "professional writer", and roleplaying fanatic named Asakusa and his friend Satoru showed up one day. I ended up handing out a couple sticks of Pocky (a Japanese snack like a thin pretzel with a chocolate or strawberry coating. There's tons of varieties, including the suspicious "Men's Pocky") to them and later on, after the dance, they stuck around to talk with us. As was tradition after a hard day of DJing at Yoyogi on a Sunday, we all then went to a particular techno record store about two kilometers away in downtown Shibuya. Along the way Asakusa asked me about my hat - a leather-brimmed Cyberpunk cap that I bought at GenCON that summer. As it turned out, both he and Satoru were not only fans of the Cyberpunk literary genre, but they also had played the Japanese translated version of the classic Cyberpunk 2020 RPG. By sheer chance, which is how things always seemed to work in Japan, I ran into two other active RPG players who also happened to be very interesting people:
Asakusa, as I mentioned above, is a writer. He is the epitome of young wannabe writers: he hangs out in literary circles, wrote for tons of amateur press mags and zines, and whatsmore was always referred to by his pen name. “Asakusa” (I forget his real name, and so do many others) is actually the name of one of the oldest districts in Edo - classy. Anyway, people also referred to him as "Asakusa-sensei" (professors, teachers, doctors, martial arts instructors and prominent writers are called "sensei"). It was hard for me to get used to that, Asakusa being a red spiky-haired guy who was a couple years younger than I was. Referring to him as a superior because he cranked out amateur fiction was a little jarring for me, seeing how everything else in Japan defers straight to age and seniority. Still, he was a nice guy who played RPGs, and he kicked ass at Street Fighter, so I humored him.
Satoru Hosono is a tall skinny guy who also is a literature, RPG and game fanatic. He is interested in almost everything, especially foreign SF and Japanese literature, Japanese religious history/Buddhism, Japanese comics, and techno and punk music. Satoru became one of my best Japanese friends, and taught me all about Buddhism, Adult Manga, and Japanese RPGs. He was in college for a number of years, studying famous Japanese writers who killed themselves. I once asked him jokingly if there were any Japanese literary greats that didn't kill themselves. After thinking seriously about it for around thirty seconds, he replied, "No".
I mentioned these two people because they, especially Satoru, will appear frequently throughout the rest of my column. They assisted, in some part, with almost all of the research I did while in Japan. Also, Satoru and a few others provided the answers to most of the serious questions that I had regarding RPGs in Japan.
In the next issue, I'm going to take a look at the history and status of RPGs in Japan, and show how computer and tabletop RPGs are viewed differently over there. More on these broad industry issues in the next episode of Gaming in Japan!
A Note: In the next episode, I would like to start answering reader questions about Japan and RPGs in Japan. I have already begun trolling sites looking for such questions, but if you have any questions on this topic, please feel free to email the crew at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll answer them in the next update!
J. Andrew Kitkowski is 26 and lives in the US again now, with his wife Orie and his three cats. He does graphic design for such luminary magazines as Places to Go, People to Be. Many people have speculated that he was a samurai from the Edo period in a past life, although he insists that he was a simple,weary rice farmer.
The second part of this series is available in Issue 20.
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