Japan Wasn’t Funny To Begin With

Japan: Not this

(This is an open letter to Tim Rogers in response to his extremely lengthy column Japan: It’s Not Funny Anymore, which was posted on Kotaku. I think I’m just about done reading Kotaku, as the signal to noise ratio has really gone south lately, but before I quit I thought I’d respond to Tim’s not-really-video-game-related post with a not-horror-game-related post of my own.)

Tim, man, how’s it going?

We’ve never met, actually, but we both live in Tokyo and we both write about video games and we both have a lot of game industry experience. I’ve been following your work for a couple of years, back when it was all on insertcredit.com. Dreaming in an Empty Room is one of my favorite examples of honest-to-goodness real, insightful, video game journalism.

So, as one white guy in Japan to another, we’re cool. You’re not the type of guy who avoids the natives at all costs. I can tell you’re not the particular type of foreigner to arrives in Japan looking for a girlfriend and a job teaching English and leaves a year later with the comfortable sense that Japanese people are all crazy and your home country is infinitely more enlightened. You don’t spend your nights at The Hub and you don’t hijack every conversation with comments about how hot the girls are or how stupid the guys are. You speak Japanese; in fact, you put significant effort into learning the language. In short, you’re a foreigner in Japan with an open mind, somebody who’s here to learn, somebody who has a sense of respect for the locals even when their behavior doesn’t make sense. You are, therefore, part of the minority group of foreigners that I refer to as “not assholes.” We’ve never met, but I can tell. So, we’re cool.

But Tim, man, I gotta talk to you about your article about Japan. Not the article itself; I’m mostly in agreement with your complaints. Smoking really bothers me, I’ve sworn never to work for a Japanese company, I don’t drink alcohol, and the TV is pretty bad (although, if I had to choose, I would have personally taken the people-eating-food shows to task before comedy). No, the problem here is your very thesis:

“I haven’t changed. Japan hasn’t really changed, either. Something else, however, has.”

Dude. You’ve changed. Let me restate this thesis for you in a way that, I think, sums up your problem more succinctly than your 15,979 words.

“I’ve slowly come to the realization that my initial understanding of Japan, my corpus of knowledge about the country that brought me here originally, is woefully incomplete and, in some cases, idealistic and naive. And the more I learn about the Japan, the more mundane and flawed it appears. What originally looked like a theme park has proven to be just another country, with all the warts and problems that every country and culture has. I ate the forbidden fruit of knowledge and now Eden looks a whole lot more like a highly landscaped pile of moss.”

It’s cool man, everybody goes through this stage. That’s right, it’s a stage. Some people hit it earlier, some later, but eventually everybody who spends significant time in Japan passes through it. The good news is, it’s the second to last stage. The earlier stages, which consist of wide-eyed awe, then short-lived self confidence, then utter confusion, and finally anger, are all behind you. Now you’re in reconciliation, which is a rough point to be, but like I said, it’s second to last. The next step, which is the last step, is acceptance.

Japan is a culture with a lot of history, but just like any culture in the world it has positive and negative aspects to it. If you choose to live here, you get positive and negative input in equal doses, just like in any other culture in the world. If

I can just throw this out there with no context and we’re cool, right? Nerd cred represent.

you return to America now, after living here for so long, you’ll find a whole lot of negative things about American culture that might have forgotten about. A whole lot of positive things too. Not more or less than Japan, just different things.

I don’t mean to get all zen on you here man, but reconciliation is about changing from within. You can either adjust your perspective or you can leave (or, option three, stay and be miserable and complain all the time and move out of the “not asshole” group). Adjusting your perspective doesn’t mean you have to like all the things that bug you about Japan, it just means that you accept some of those things as normal operating behavior and not some aberration of common sense.

My suggestion, dude, is to separate your complaints into two categories: stuff that bugs you because it makes no sense, and stuff that bugs you because it makes it hard for you to live your life the way you want to. The latter category is probably things like “it’s hard to be a vegetarian here,” or “working late every night for no reason is a horrible way to live,” or “I cannot afford to live here.” These issues could be deal-breakers, and if you can’t satisfy them somehow, you should probably consider moving to a different country. The former category, however, doesn’t really have all that much to do with you; businessmen screaming drunkenly at night is weird, but only because your definition of “normal” doesn’t include it (and, I imagine that many of the locals would agree with you on this point). Common sense is not, in any way, shape or form, common. Letting that former category go and realizing that It’s Ok Even If I Wouldn’t Do It That Way is the first step to the acceptance stage.

That’s not to say that anything goes, or that you have to like everything you see. Au contraire, when you reach acceptance it’s easier to separate the real problems with the society from the flamboyant-but-non-representative actions of vocal minorities.

Personally, I live in Japan because it requires me to learn constantly. The volume of information that I do not understand about the language, the culture, the history, and the people is infinitely vast. There’s lots of stuff I don’t like about Japan, but I live here because it requires me to keep thinking, to keep learning. There was a time when I didn’t know why I wanted to live in Japan, and another time when I thought I wanted to live in Japan for the wrong reasons. So I know how this feels, man. When I leave, it’ll either be because a better opportunity comes along or because one of those lifestyle deal-breakers rears its ugly head.

So Tim, dude, I gotta wrap this up before it turns into my own little novella, but please, take this to heart: it’s you who is changing, and the change isn’t random. It’s a natural progression and it’s the direct result from living and learning about a foreign culture. Love it or leave it, but don’t blame the locals for odd behavior that doesn’t conform to your internal correctness barometer. If you’re going to take Japan to task about something, make it a real issue, like the treatment of women in the workplace or the status of Japanese people with Korean heritage. Figure this out and move on or drop out and find something less challenging to do with your life. Seriously, that’s the junction that you’re at right now.

Alright, I’m getting off my high horse now. London Hearts is on in 5. I’ve got some Deadly Premonition to catch up on, too.

Talk to you later,


PS: If you haven’t done it yet, try getting out of Tokyo for a while. Out of Kanto, I mean. In my limited experience, every other part of Japan is very different than Tokyo. People are jerks in Tokyo.

PPS: If you want to hang out some time and swap game industry war stories, drop me a line. I know a good tan-tan men place in Shibuya. Oh, right, you don’t eat meat. Do you eat fish? How do you survive here, man?

10 thoughts on “Japan Wasn’t Funny To Begin With

  1. and on the 8th day God created e-mails…

    Well, I do see the point on posting this. This is the kind of advice travel guides should give. Cultures are much more than they appear to be, for better or worse. We should be aware that we’ll never be able to fully understand a country unless we are born in it, and even then there’s always something new to learn.

    As a Spaniard who once visited Japan, I never got past the “awe stage”. I consider myself pretty open to any kind of culture (which includes being able to recognize its apparent flaws), but the Japanese language is too big a barrier for me. I’ll always have this totally idealistic yet inaccurate idea of what Japan is. Travelling really opens your eyes, makes you realize how little you know.

    Take my country, Spain. Most historically catholic nations have little tradition of fantasy or horror in literature, but I can assure you we are first on that list. All of our medieval epics are realistic, sober and accurate (see “El Cid”). Anything fantastic (outside the boudaries of catholic religion) has been traditionally considered a waste of time for idiots (see Don Quixote). The famous Spanish Inquisition focused on the prosecution of jews, moors and “delinquents”, not witches or satanists (there’s only one case of medieval witchcraft in Spain). Even our traditional boogeyman was a real serial killer (see Sacamantecas). Traditionally ghosts, vampires and monsters in general have been nothing more than a joke, not even worthy of children’s tales.

    As someone who loves horror and fantasy fiction more than any other genre, I should hate my culture. I did, for a little while. I thought I had been born in the wrong place, with nothing to grab on to, no references.

    Then I learnt to accept and even appreciate my own country’s rich tradition of literature and film. I did not find much horror, but I found the need for it, if you know what I mean. All these spanish horror films that have come out in the past few years (REC, The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Others) are the answer to years and years of social realism and sex comedy as the predominant genres.

    Yes, for the most part these horror films are clichรฉ (regardless of their quality), and they don’t really belong in our culture. But people have embraced them, and today horror is the safest bet for a film producer in Spain. Spanish audiences want to be terrified in their own language. A genre is emerging, ready to be explored and integrated in our culture. I may have been born in the right place at the right time, after all.

    What I’m trying say is that hating or loving a culture per se is pointless. The reasons for such love or hate are usually unfounded or just the result of an incomplete vision. Being aware of this is the first step towards actually learning something. Somehow, spanish filmmakers have seen a void in our film history and proceeded to fill it, making a fortune where most people saw no market at all.

    Anyway, good post Chris.

  2. Well, I do see the point on posting this.

    I meant the point OF posting this. Please forgive my grammar.

  3. http://www.coolhorsegames.org/
    but you give some great advice that i think can be used for all countries!

    There are many things about many countries that are completely alien culturally!

    I can’t imagine returning to the country of my birth as i just don’t want to be part of the culture there although there are many many things i miss and i still call it “home” it just isn’t home for me anymore.

    Where will i end up in the future? who knows ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. You read through an entire Tim Rogers article?? You’re a brave man…

    Also about the picture, great episode. To bad sci-fi hasn’t been that good in a long time.

  5. …I was actually kinda offended by that article… I went to Japan as a kid ,and it was one of THOSE moments in my life. One I’ll never forget. ( I’m from Guam(civilian),and I always thought of it as a magical place.Then ,when I spent an entire day on layover-I fell in love again.But as a ‘grown-up’…( Less “magic”…more ‘Johnny Walker’ in vending machines in the hotel hallways!)
    I got lost,and found ,and lost again…Bought ‘Transformers’ and ‘Robotech’ Valkyries a full 18 year before ANYONE in the USA knew what was coming.
    But there WERE and still are , REALLY cool ,really forward thinking..Really inventive peole EVERYWHERE …
    Japan ( and the few japanese people I have known say it’s so )seem to me to be a place where being studious and hardworking and..well..SMART..is still thought of has a virtue.
    I have been around teachers my whole life (family thing ) and even when I was a kid…–and it’s worse now it seems– There was a REAL aggression towards the ‘smart kids’ or the ‘nerdy’ people..Talking like a mush mouthed ‘street thug’ ,even when your name is Chaz or Trevor and you live in the suburbs ,is where it’s at..NOT reading…Music Videos and ‘Idol’..Not the History Channel and the Scienec Channels…( I have actually had the word “scholar !” yelled at me like an insult.)The USA is NOT doing well as far as ‘Behaving’ well…and I don’t see it getting better. Remember , for every person playing MASS EFFECT or some other involved,complex game..There’s 4 or 5 People watching some washed up Soap Opera ‘Star’ on ‘So you Think You Can Dance?”… Our country is NOT the beacon it once was…
    And Japan ,while not perfect , Is hanging in there in many ways…
    It seems to me that in a place where one is expected to ‘pull their own weight’ and ‘Blending in’ is kind of a religion of sorts ,then those little things a that make you who you REALLY are (your ‘art’ or music ,or humor ,or?) then those things can mean much more…Than a place like the USA (ecspecialy THESE Days) where Generations who’ve been Told OVER and OVER about just ” How SPECIAL ” they are all..EVERYONE here is told that ‘THEY” are the Sh*T…From Hippy parents to PC ‘Partners’ .they ALL have raised the most selfish and greedy generation in US History ( hey–even TIME Magazine has articles about this ‘Entitlement Generation”…)They are now growing up and more than EVER ,despite the fact that it OBVIOUSLY Doesn’t Work , they are ALL too happy to tell the entire WORLD that ‘they are doing it Wrong!’…
    Gee..”everyone Smokes ” in Japan? Oh gosh..What a Nightmare..We NEVER did that here–oh,,,wait..yeah..WE DID…
    ( But Now ,we’ve decided to ‘Nanny’ it outta existance..No Smoking in a BAR?..Because it’s Not GOOD for you?
    They drink and are pushy…? Hmmmm…BEEN to any US City in the –oh..say..Last 100 years?
    I would like to know where wassis name THINKS is some ‘fresh air,polite utopia…
    Japan IS creepy in many ways…The whole ‘Whaling’ thing…Creepy. The weird sex stuff….Creepy. There’s LOTS of strange,offensive stuff there…
    But the stuff that guy’s complaining about?

    For Shame ..( and THANKS for making us gamers and non-Japanese and (US?) People look every bit has Intolerant has we’re percieved…Thanks a lot…

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