Thanks to household names like Nintendo and Sony, Japan’s influence on video games is hard to overstate. In the 35 years since the Nintendo Entertainment System released, gamers all over the world have enjoyed the fruits of Japan’s labor, but it’s only been in the last few years that Japanese games designed for a Japanese audience have caught on in the West.
Whereas games and series set in heavily fictitious locations and cultures such as The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Pokémon have often done well with the rest of the world, there’s been a recent boost in popularity among games that take place in fictionalized versions of Japan. Series such as Persona and Yakuza have long been successful in their home country, but last year saw both Persona 5 and Nier: Automata take home various “Game of the Year” awards and nominations around the world, while Yakuza’s relaunch on the Playstation 4 was met with so much acclaim that the series is already being ported over to PC as well.
While some industry giants like Nintendo are perfectly happy sticking with their established formula of focusing on the same handful of massively popular titles for everyone, their former rivals at Sega have breathed new life into their name by bringing the more specifically Japanese game to the world. Of course, gone are the days when a rough word-for-word translation was good enough to push a game to a foreign market (just ask anyone who played Final Fantasy VII back in the day). Now, entire teams — such as the one in Sega’s Irvine-based American headquarters — dedicate their careers to ensuring that every name, idiom, and detail stays true to the original while still making sense for an audience that may not understand the language nor the culture.
“If you did something with a straight translation as accurately as possible, you’d end up with something incredibly dry and uninteresting to play,” says Scott Strichart, a localization producer for the American branch of Atlus, one of Sega’s primary Japanese subsidiaries. “What localization does is adapt the source language into the target language in a way that makes it really fun to play and to read. It makes it more fun to engage with, because the characters are popping off the screen in a way that you understand. We’re bridging the culture, whether that’s bringing you closer to the source or bringing the source closer to you.”
As cultural translators, one of the biggest challenges Strichart and his team face is explaining the aspects of daily life in modern Japan that are largely assumed to be naturally understood by the game’s original audience. Although Yakuza isn’t nearly as similar to Grand Theft Auto as some people seem to think it is, Grand Theft Auto V’s unapologetic representation of Los Angeles is not unlike how the Yakuza games represent their hometowns — and it makes a hell of a lot more sense if you’re at least mildly familiar with the local culture.
“The source material doesn’t always go to the extent to talk about [differences in culture] because it’s just a natural part that if you go to the convenience store, there’ll be an ATM where you can pick up packages and that kind of thing,” Strichart says. “There’ll be a quest that just says ‘Go to the convenience store to pick up a package,’ but you’re sitting there like ‘Why on Earth would I go pick up a package at a convenience store?!’ That’s where we try to bridge that gap a little bit with something like ‘Oh a convenience store — how convenient! Here in Japan we can pick up packages here,’ without being that blatant and obvious about it. There are also times when there’s just no place for it, and we just have to expect the consumer to understand that it’s not their culture and there’s going to be a little bit of foreignness to it.”
Even for a team with decades-long localization veterans like Strichart, puzzles like how to portray specific Japanese accents that don’t have an American equivalent take the entire group to solve. Whereas no one might’ve cared (or noticed) a botched translation or misused tone a handful of years ago, the combination of obsessive social media users and click-hungry gaming news websites means that even when the Atlus crew flawlessly adapts a 60-hour game in 6 months, there’ll still be someone online telling them it wasn’t good enough or fast enough.
But with Yakuza Kiwami 2 and a modernized re-release of the first two Shenmue games all out this month (as well as plenty of other titles coming over from Japan later this year — ranging from the ultra-bloody Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise to the rhythm-based Persona offshoot dancing games), the internet trolls will likely be outnumbered by fans more than ever.
“It’s an incredible time to be working on Japanese content,” Strichart says. “When you look back a couple of years ago, Japan was in this funk where they were trying to imitate what the West could do. It didn’t take off, so they kind of retreated inwards and just made what they know. But now that they’re making what they know, everyone else is like ‘We want that!’ Japanese content is competing again with the most successful titles of the last two years because it’s telling good stories and making games that people want to play.”
With that decision to make games for themselves, Japanese developers have also managed to force much of their Western audience out of their comfort zone. For those who aren’t caught up in the sex or violence in titles like Yakuza — which isn’t really any worse than what you’d see from other mainstream games targeted at adults (although Persona probably looks kid-friendly enough to throw some parents off) — the big aspect separating it from more familiar games is the immersion of the culture. Much like how going to a country where you don’t speak the language can be the best way to learn a foreign language, playing a game like Yakuza gives a lot of Westerners a crash course in Japanese culture. There’s a reason it’s referred to as “virtual tourism,” after all.
“Yakuza is built for a Japanese 30-plus male, and it doesn’t do that apologetically,” Strichart says. “If you want to play that in the West or wherever else, that’s the kind of game you’re going to get. I think there’s an appreciation for that now that they aren’t catering to anyone else and that they’re making games for themselves. It’s been interesting, and it keeps it more niche than you’d expect it to be or even want it to be as a company. We’re never going to beat Zelda numbers with Yakuza, but the content that we’re producing feels authentic. It feels cool to essentially be seeing this game from a foreigner’s perspective.”
Josh Chesler used to play baseball for some pretty cool teams, but now he just writes about awesome stuff like tattoos, music, MMA and sneakers. He enjoys injuring himself by skateboarding, training for fights, and playing musical instruments in his off time.