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Gaming in Japan: An Odyssey

by Andy Kitkowski


In the previous episode of my article, I described some of my initial experiences in Japan, and introduced a few characters that will appear later in these articles. In this episode I'm going to look at more specific issues involving RPGs and the RPG industry in Japan.

The Status of RPGs in Japan

Soon after I found a few RPG friends, I began to wonder about the overall status of RPGs in Japan. After doing a lot of research and informal interviews, I've found the status of RPGs in Japan to be rather low. Here's some quick facts: No normal bookstores in Japan carry them, and while some extremely large multi-story bookstores do, this is more by accident than design. Only a handful of hobby stores scattered throughout Japan (but centered in Tokyo) have them, and they are usually not well stocked.

I have heard that many other countries (such as Australia) are like this as well, but to an American this was staggering! We can pretty much go to any bookstore in any mall in the US and expect to find at least a D&D Player's Handbook or White Wolf supplement. For me, it was like someone took a time machine and edited the history of Japan in such a way that it erased all traces of roleplaying from all but the strongest bastions of the literature (or underground gaming caerns) in the country.

This analogy probably seems so true because most people in Japan have never heard of these games we play. In America, at the very least, you can make a reference to Dungeons and Dragons and the average person will know that you are talking about a game that's played regularly by "geeky types". Mentioning the names of the RPGs played the most in Japan, including D&D, will return nothing but blank stares there. In the space of three and a half years of teaching in public schools in Japan I spoke to around roughly two thousand children from 5th grade to 9th grade, and out of curiosity asked them whether they had played RPGs (usually as part of my self-introduction or similar speech-activity). None of them had, and only two (again, out of literally thousands) had even heard of them.

Interestingly enough, when I went into detail with those kids about what RPGs were like, what you can do with them, etc, a lot of kids, both boys and girls, seemed very interested. However, there wasn't anywhere to go from there, as RPG materials are rather hard to come by. They technically can be ordered at almost any bookstore, but it's often hard for the average bookstore clerk to find RPG publisher releases in the catalogues that stores use to place orders.


Another curious thing is that RPGs in Japan aren't even labeled as RPGs. The RPGs that we know and love are called "TRPGs". The T stands for, as the Japanese RPers say, "Table-Talk". If, however, you say the letters "RPG" (in English), they're instantly recognized by almost anyone under the age of 60 in Japan- and they are synonymous with console (video) games on home systems like Playstation and Nintendo. Strangely enough, most people know that RPG stands for "Role Playing Game" (the Japanese use the direct loanword, so it comes out as "Ro-ru Purei-ingu Geimu"), but most people don't know what "Role Playing" means. Most assume that those two words imply "a video game involving a story, collecting items, often using magic, gaining levels and hitpoints, and toppling 'Bosses'". I once had the pleasure of frying the brains of a class full of 14-15 year old students in a high school class one day when someone asked what "RPG" meant. I had them look up "role" in their bright and colorful English-Japanese dictionaries, but even then they didn't really make the connection until I explained how, even when they play Zelda or Final Fantasy, they are getting into the "role" of another character, much like a play. It was fun to watch "the light" go on for 40 students at once. This is how TRPGs are commonly explained to the beginner in Japan- They explain what the English word "role" really refers to (using examples of "a role in a play or drama" and the like), and from there the explanation becomes clear.

Anyway, with that, from this point on, I'm going to refer to OUR RPGs as "TRPGs" and video games like Final Fantasy and Zelda as "RPGs". This may annoy some readers (because, all together now, "There is NO real roleplaying in video games"), myself included, but that's the way things work in Japan.

So Why is the Status so Low?

There are a couple reasons that the status of TRPGs in Japan is so low as to be unnoticeable. One reason concerns the history of RPGs in Japan, and the others are primarily sociological.

The history of TRPGs in Japan isn't very long. They came to Japan sometime in the early 80s, starting with Dungeons and Dragons and, shortly afterwards, Tunnels and Trolls. Soon, an original Japanese fantasy TRPG emerged called Sword World. Sword World still remains the most popular fantasy TRPG in Japan.

Right in the middle of the 1980s, though, one critical event happened that irrevocably changed the future of TRPGs in Japan, as well as across the world: The release of the first "Role-Playing Game" for the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System), Dragon Quest. Featuring "Hit Points", character advancement "Levels" and a story set in a fantasy background, it not only quickly became the most popular video game in Japan, but it also introduced the English Words "Role Playing Game" and "RPG". Soon after, they became household words. Dragon Quest spawned tons of clones and rip-offs, as well as innovative evolutions on the concept (Final Fantasy, for one). The Dragon Quest sequels quickly solidified the concept of Video Games as RPGs because of the sheer number of people who came to equate the terms.

When Dragon Quest III was released in Japan, people lined up for as much as three days outside of large game stores in the electronics district of Tokyo (Akihabara), sleeping on the streets just to get their hands on that 8-bit RPG. For Japan, that was the blow that struck a dividing line between RPGs and TRPGs, and TRPGs have been struggling ever since.

The rest, of course, is history. Japanese console RPGs are a billion-dollar industry, and are played all over the world. Japanese computer RPGs are a million-dollar industry, and rarely leave the country (the amount of money and talent spent on console vs computer games is exactly the opposite between America/Europe and Japan). The major Japanese TRPG companies - both of them - probably have never held a million dollars at one time between them, at least not in the last 10 years.

Of course it just wasn't the release of a game that caused the fragile TRPG hold on Japan to shatter. There are several social reasons why RPGs consistently remained more popular for Japanese people than TRPGs.

The TRPG "Boom"

The good news about the explosion of RPGs in Japan is that it actually carried over into the TRPG market as well. Up until that time, the Western fantasy genre wasn't very widespread or known. Thanks to games like Dragon Quest, though, more people became interested in this genre. Western fantasy novels (Japanese original novels and foreign translations) and manga sold more than ever, and the genre was established in Japan.

Since most TRPGs in Japan at that time were western fantasy ones, there was a boom in the gaming scene in the mid to late 80s and early 90s. Western fantasy, spread through the sales of schlock Nintendo RPGs, attracted more players to TRPGs than at any period before or after. Most of my Japanese friends who currently play TRPGs, or played them in the past, started in this era.

Unfortunately, the boom didn't last forever. Over time, as console game systems improved in graphics and sound, the RPGs released for those systems became more compelling with every new system. RPG distributors and manufacturers had enough money to make and ship them everywhere, while TRPG makers could barely afford to shelve a limited number of books at a few bookstores. The RPG business has that money from the sales of last year's video games, and so on all the way back to Dragon Quest. It's a high volume money consuming, money returning industry and it gets bigger and bigger every year. And, as I will explain below, console RPGs are much easier for the Japanese to become involved with than social TRPGs.

While this is the same as any of our western countries, the extremes are a little unusual. In Japan, you can probably look at the "game" section of dozens of large bookstores before you could find a single TRPG game. Console video games for the Playstation can be found absolutely everywhere in Japan these days, including bookstores and even convenience stores like 7-11: that's right, in Japan it's possible to buy beer, condoms and Final Fantasy X at the same store!

Recruitment for Minors

With hardly any market penetration, or even an accidental chance to run into TRPGs at a store, it's left up to the roleplayers of Japan to recruit new players. Unfortunately, it's a much harder task than someone from the US could reasonably imagine. The most successful recruitment methods in Japan are but two: New friends and school clubs. New friends, like in the West, can sometimes be convinced to join an RPG session at least once.

School clubs are a much more fertile breeding ground. School clubs in Japan are extremely important, as they are where a Japanese student, from junior high school to college, gets the majority of their peer social interaction. Junior high school and high school students usually do club activities for 4 hours a day, 6 on Saturdays, and sometimes even all day on Sundays (especially sports clubs). Since Japanese students find a lot of their social interaction from clubs (indeed most school friends are made from within the particular club that the student belongs to), it often happens that if the seniors of some Kendo, swimming, baseball or other club started playing TRPGs, they would spread to many other members of that club.

This was true of the club that I joined in college in Tokyo. Many years ago, the club started as primarily a science fiction and fantasy literature group. At some point, a few of the seniors introduced TRPGs to the rest of the group, and they adopted TRPGs as one of their main activities.

Something that I noticed recently after my friend Satoru pointed it out shows the importance of school clubs in Japan: Almost all single-day gaming and comic conventions occur on Sundays. This is, of course, to accommodate the RPG circles made up of high school and college students: since many public school still have school on Saturdays, Sunday becomes the logical choice for these kinds of conventions.

Recruitment for Adults

For adults, things get a little trickier. You don't have to have your finger on the pulse of contemporary Japan to know that Japanese workers spend a lot more time in the office than their foreign counterparts (although it is a fact that many white-collar Japanese, especially government employees, spend a lot more of that time drinking tea, taking breaks, and chatting at the office than their American counterparts). However, it should be well noted that many Japanese people also have a hobby that they take part in, for many reasons (primarily social interaction outside the company/family). When I say a hobby, I mean ONE. Hobbies are taken very seriously in Japan- If you ask your average European "what is your hobby?" you can probably expect a multitude of answers ("Camping, computers, writing, movies, etc"). Most Japanese, however, pursue only one hobby... and pursue it with a serious dedication. If it's fishing, you can expect them to spend all of their free time fishing. The same is especially true of golf and other sports or martial arts. Religion is almost a hobby in this sense: if a Japanese person is a Christian, they probably spend at least several hours a week doing services for the church or hanging out with other churchgoers. Even games, like Mahjongg or Pachinko, can be pursued seriously for hours a day or entire weekends.

TRPGs, with their more laid-back approach, don't boast the forceful conviction of time and money that these other hobbies do- perhaps amplified by the fact that they're impossible to play on your own (and thus don't have a community to goad you on). At least with CCGs like Magic the Gathering (still booming in Japan), Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon you can spend a lot of time and concentration making decks for competition with friends or fellow hobbyists. TRPGs are harder to fit into the "hobby" mold of serious part-time dedication. Because of this, many Japanese roleplayers tend to pursue other hobbies as well. And if those other hobbies require serious dedication (like flower arranging or a musical instrument) or constant group participation (like a sports club, social dance club or English conversation class) then playing TRPGs may be left behind. It certainly doesn't have to happen, but you can see that the odds are stacked against TRPGs in this situation.

Admittedly, I have generalised a bit about the seriousness of hobbies here. Of course not everyone pursues only one hobby, or pursues it to such a high degree. But even so, foreigners are often taken aback in the way that many Japanese say that they have only one hobby. Then they're taken aback again by the fervor that some people pursue those hobbies (almost a work-like dedication). Most people in Japan will know of a "fishing hobbyist" who spends every weekend or holiday all day at the lake, a Pachinko fan who goes to the parlor several times a week, or a flower-arranger who practices almost every day and holiday with other flower-arranging enthusiasts.

House Customs

"House customs", as a reason for the limited spread of TRPGs in Japan, seems pretty strange or weak at first. However, it is an issue of much concern for Japanese gamers because it sometimes seriously impedes gaming.

Japanese people do not often invite non-family members to dinner at their houses. In old Japan, visiting someone else's house for more than a few minutes was rare (and sometimes still is, depending on your age, neighborhood situation and where you live), and usually requires the guest to purchase a present for the host, usually a food or snack item. These days, it's not nearly as rare, but Japanese houses and apartments are much smaller than their Western equivalents, and so most social gatherings happen outside the house. If people come together for a party or casual meeting, the usual thing to do is to all go to an Izakaya, a Japanese combination restaurant/tavern. Not only do Izakayas cater to these kinds of gatherings, it also doesn't put any improper pressure on a "host" to provide a clean space, dishes, or do any clean-up afterwards. Izakayas, being often loud, loud, dark and loud, aren't an ideal gaming situation. Even though people sit around a table in a group, and usually walls or partitions divide parties, the sound typically carries from surrounding groups and distractions are everywhere.

In Japan, like the West, the most basic playing area for a TRPG is someone's house or apartment; however, space factors may become limiting, especially if everyone lives in apartments or if everyone lives far away from each other, which is more often the case (TRPGers are few and far between). As for the above talk regarding hosts, most TRPG players are younger and not quite so traditional, so they usually don't have a problem lending space in their house or apartment for a gaming gathering. However, guests will still probably still bring snacks (typical gamer fare: chips, cookies and the like, around $5 US worth) or drinks to express gratitude for the host. This is a sort of watered-down version of the present-offering custom mentioned above. If the host lives at home with an extended family (which can often be the case), the players will absolutely bring gifts for the family of the host: classier snacks, small cakes and the like (around $6-10 worth or more, depending on the household or general wealth of the host). Of course, if people visit a particular host's house often, then such expensive gifts aren't necessary- but at least something small will usually be brought.

Snacks aside, though, you can see how space/house issues can become a big factor in limiting TRPGs, especially when you consider that a lot of people in their 20s and 30s still live in their family's house.

Looking at my friend Satoru's situation, the space problem really becomes apparent. Since he's living in Tokyo, he's ("of course", to the Japanese) living with his parents, sister, grandmother and aunt in a large house. He'll probably be living there even in his 30s, and probably continue to do so even if he gets married. His room is a little roomy, and thus can accommodate a TRPG session of 3-4 people around a small table before it starts getting cramped. For 5-6 people sessions, it would be very tight. And since there is only one shared "family room" for his house where all his relatives watch TV and read, it's very inconvenient to the point of rude for him to use that room for 4-6 hours to host a semi-noisy game session.

When he games, he often goes to Asakusa's or another friend's apartment to do so. Apartments, especially in Tokyo, can be just as cramped as Satoru's bedroom, but since there isn't an extended family on the other side of the walls, Satoru's game group can feel free to make more noise.

People and Time

When I asked into the low status of TRPGs on Japanese web forums and the like, TRPG fans often reply that the time and effort required to plan a gaming session, compared to the preparation required to play console RPGs (turn on the TV), is significant. In Japan, where you can buy tickets, ship or receive goods, shop for dinner, pay your bills, buy CDs, games, books, and booze, all from the 14 trillion convenience stores that litter the country, convenience is more than just a way of living: it's a mantra of the Japanese Condition. The Path of Least Resistance here is a six lane highway with no speed limit. In this country it is very hard for the average person, especially just breaking into TRPGs, to find the passion and energy to go out of their way to arrange a TRPG session or campaign with their friends, unless everyone involved it passionate about and/or is interested in gaming.

When it Rains, it Pours. But it Never Rains.

It's not the case that it's impossible to find players or anything like that. It's just really, really hard (and unlikely unless you're specifically looking). As my personal experiences in Tokyo (from the last episode of this column) show, once you do find a role-player in Japan, it's not too hard to find more. It's just finding that first gamer or circle that's the hard part. I mentioned above the concept of "social or hobby circles" in Japan. A lot of Japanese hobby activities are set up in the format of social circles (it's even called "Circle" sa-kuru in Japan).

The best way to describe these TRPG Circles is as a terrorist cell network. Say, for example, you want to find out about TRPG Conventions or stores that sell TRPGs. Before the Internet (and if you can't easily access the Internet, which is the case for a lot of Japanese), the only way to do that was to go on a manhunt for anyone in a TRPG Circle. Once you found one and infiltrated a circle, the entire network, and all related information, is open for you to access.

The Internet is a Godsend to the TRPG world in Japan because it's an effective "in" to the TRPG world. There are a few large general TRPG sites with BBSes made just for locating players in your area. But even more than that, if you locate one TRPGer on the Internet and trade a few friendly emails, you can quickly gain enough contacts from that person to move through a few other players until you have all the information you need.

In fact, this is how I met a lot of my TRPG contacts in Japan upon my return to the US. After trading a few friendly emails with the host of a gaming site, I was able to get information regarding a few other RPers, and from there I made the acquaintance of some people in the Japanese gaming industry, including one of the lead TRPG-inspired manga artists in the country. Her name is Naoko Kanazawa, and in a future installment of this article I'm going to showcase some of her RPG manga works here. The circles of interaction in the TRPG world in Japan are much tighter than the ones in the American gaming scene; but then again, this is probably due to the fact that the scene is so small.


Japanese TRPG players and promoters have their work cut out for them. While the Internet has created forums for Japanese TRPG fans to gather and talk, it's still harder, culturally, for the average Japanese person to get involved in TRPGs or to keep playing them once they become involved. I can't say that TRPGs will ever die and fade away from Japan (no hobby will ever truly die), but it is clear that they will never become as popular as they are in other countries.

In the next issue, I'm going to show some examples of what a typical Japanese gaming session is like, and describe my experiences at Japanese gaming conventions.

Remember- I'm always looking to take questions about gaming in Japan (I'll start answering some that I've been receiving in the next episode). If you have a question, please submit it to the editors at PTGPTB, or send it over to the PTGPTB public forum.

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