Wiimote Remote Manual

Just in case anyone is interested, Nintendo have just posted a corrected guide to the Wiimote Remote on-line here. It shows the Konami-code-esque television calibration and the functionality of the Wiimote-shaped television remote which, as you can see from the spec drawings bears an uncanny resemblance to the real thing.
I plan to confuse a lot of future opponents with it as I get a head start in Wii Tennis before they realise why the controller isn't working!

Go to petting: Nekotama

Tokyo often seems no place for humans to live, let alone pets, especially in those 1 room apartments where there is little enough breathing space for a man without having to worry about his best friend too. For this reason “air dogs”, those yappy small dogs with faces like constipated rats that get carried everywhere are quite popular. Big dogs, though you do see them around, are a lot rarer and cats seem to get the sharp end of the stick in mythology and folklore being harbingers of doom and death. Those cats you see with stubby tails haven’t been cruelly treated、by the way, they are born and bred that way,, but even still, cats don’t get the love and affection dogs do.

The foreigner in Japan may rightly feel uneasy about getting a pet. You won’t have to social networks here that allow you to travel while a neighbour looks after the animal, and trips to the GP are scary enough, I can’t imagine the vet won’t suffer from the same communication barriers too. And without a cuddly fur ball to keep you company what is a man to do?

Luckily some entrepreneur in Japan has realized the potential of fuzzy therapy and has opened a petting zoo. Neko-Tama, in Futagotamagawa, on the south border of Tokyo, is one of these and offers not only the opportunity to cuddle a cat but also for cat lovers to rage at the treatment of the poor things. A small cat-themed village street has cats of various breeds in little rooms with large glass windows and little plaques with their photo, name and details on. “This is Tama-chan, 3 years old, our star attraction. She loves salmon and playing with children” next to which a photo of a cat with a look so miserably inconvenienced as only a photographed cat can manage.

A few of the meeker ones are let loose and hide under the cat-shaped benches. At the end of the street is a play room where up to 10 cats are let loose to mingle with the visitors. Or rather, that is the idea. In reality it is a battlefield of badly behaved children running after a few stressed-out cats that climb up to the highest possible areas where they hide, shaking and nervous. Though the proprietors like to portray the cats as if they were idols the kids and their parents simply have no clue how to treat them. The only cat that was safe from the onslaught was a massively fat bundle of fur, an ancient feline who just didn’t have the energy to be scared anymore. I guess the kids left him alone because he didn’t squeal so amusingly when his fur was rubbed the wrong way, or jump up when you clapped your hands right behind his ears. The very unlucky ones may even be dressed up in “cute outfits”, a horrendous fad that most pets in Japan sooner or later have to deal with, with pet clothes stores littered around Tokyo.

Visiting Neko-tama is a double-edged sword for the foreign cat lover. On the one hand it is nice to interact with cats occasionally; on the other it will just upset you to see how the poor things are treated. There are dog versions of this too but I have never visited those. I presume they fare a little better as dogs are more respected pets in Japan, and besides, they are dumb enough creatures to not get stressed out by maltreatment.

Location: Futagotamagawa is on the Hanzomon/De-emtoshi line towards Chuorinkan.
Website: Neko-Tama (the website contains printable coupons that offer half-price entry)
Map: here, though the website has maps to any of its many petting zoos.

Don’t worry, more game/industry related posts are on the way!


In the heyday of Japan’s gaming splendour arcade halls were filled with the latest and greatest machines. They were date spots, places for school kids to hang out, somewhere to check out the newest cabinets, a place for developers to show off their latest technologies and control gimmicks. These days it seems few companies bother anymore, as the general public has finally gotten tired of throwing away good cash for short-term gratification and are now demanding cheap toys for their hard-earned lolly. UFO catchers are everywhere; like a virus they have spread and taken over most of the gaming establishments.

UFO Catchers are the type of games where you maneuver a crane with a grab arm over a pit of soft toys and hope to pick one up, which is then deposited down a hole, or usually not. They come in many shapes and sizes, from the downward grab, the wall of goodies, hooking an arm through a pulley or massively big ones for larger prizes. They usually cost about 100 or 200 Yen per go, with extra attempt for bulk input, like 3 tries for 500 Yen. Some machines use only the up/right motion, some allow you to rotate the arm too. In all cases they have the grabbing and lifting power of a limp-wristed wet tissue.

I have been reliably informed that to avoid gaming laws, as gambling is still technically illegal in Japan, prizes in these machines are never more expensive than 700 orso yen.
A lot of the toys, however, are specifically made for UFO Catcher machines and use a wide variety of famous IPs. The otaku may find himself throwing in coin after coin to get that special Gundam, Relakuma, dot-graphic Mario pillow or Famicom-styled tissue box cover. Usually, however, the more famous toys do end up in special stores in Akihabara, if you know where to look for them.

Other machines that have gradually taken over the arcades are the photo booths, though even these can’t compete with UFO Catchers anymore. The booths are pretty fun, though, and use some cool technology to photograph you and your date in a variety of settings with a huge number of options available for post-effects. As they offer anything from larger photos to charts with photographic stickers prices vary wildly. These booths are almost exclusively inhabited by gaggles of schoolgirls, so the curious gaijin may cause a few odd looks.

It is, however, not entirely bleak. Real arcade games are still hanging on, albeit with less prominence than before. The number 1 machine, by all accounts, is Sega’s Mushi King, a beetle card battle machine aimed mostly at the young. You’ll find these everywhere, usually the low variety with big colourful chairs. Beetle wrestling is still a popular hobby in Japan and Sega has been capitalizing on it for a while now.
Racing games also seem to have staying power, with Namco’s cheekily expensive and dumbed down Mario Kart Arcade GP about to have its second incarnation and Taito’s Battle Gear still sticking around.

Most space dedicated to gaming though is usually taken up with older, sit-down machines where less than half are running old classics or dodgy Mahjongg games, and the rest running fighters, from Tekken to Virtua Fighter to Street Fighter, these machines are always in use. They are hooked up together so an unsuspecting player might unintentionally find himself challenging a frumpy schoolboy on the opposite cabinet. Chances are he will beat you withing seconds.
The rest of the arcade is filled with the usual cash changers, drinks vending machines and plenty of ashtrays as smoking is allowed.

Arcade halls really aren’t as popular as they once were. Whereas once companies used to experiment with dog-walking games, featuring a large conveyor-belt type control system, or a Japanese comedy duo game, where a player had to smack a plastic dummy next to him at the right, presumably hilarious moments, these days everybody knows the money is in the UFO Catchers. Namco World in Shibuya closed down. Sega World close-by is now a sea of UFO Catchers and Taito Worlds are stuck in street fight territory. There was a time I used to hang out and play Time Crisis or Samba de Amigo as I waited for time to pass for some reason or other, then there were times I used to try and catch the wife a few nice toys, but these days I steer clear of the places. Maybe now that Square has its mitts on Taito, purportedly for the extensive inroads into the arcade business it has, things may change, But like most things in Japan it’ll be later rather than sooner.

Merchant bankers

When it comes to choosing which bank to apply to in Japan there isn’t much in it. Most banks are pretty indistinguishable from each other when it comes to services and interest rates, which usually are “expensive or non-existent” and “microscopic” respectively. Bank accounts, though, are very easy to open, even for foreigners, so there is little to worry about there. With a foreigner registration card (“gaijin card” in common parlance), maybe a passport as a back-up and a single 1 yen coin you could theoretically open an account anywhere. However, your choices are limited from a rather unexpected angle.

Once you become a full-time employee you will be asked (read: required) to join the establishment your employer banks with. This is to minimise transfer fees and make the whole process easier and quicker for the employer. This was fine when long-term employment was a given in Japan but those days are drawing to a close, making job-hopping an incredibly annoying affair. Imagine having to change banks, transferring all your automated payments and credit card bills and getting new cards and PINs every time you change your job. As such it may be beneficial, if you’re moving to Japan with a job offer in hand, to ask your employer what bank he uses, in case you end up turning into a full-time employee. This will save you a lot of hassle later.

You may need to get yourself a “hanko”, a stamp with your name on, which acts as a signature for almost everything in Japan. These can usually be bought cheaply in 100 yen shops, but only for those with common Japanese names. You will have to get one made specially at a hanko shop, in katakana, which will extrude gasps of awe and shrieks of “suteki--!!!" from any Japanese person who sees it.
Bank books, which you have filled in by sticking them into ATMs and selecting the appropriate option, will have your name on it too, but as the machines that print them usually only deal with a maximum of 5 kanji names, don’t be surprised if your name gets cut off or, like mine, is written by hand on the cover.

Substantial loans, for, say, mortgages, will be a virtual impossibility until you become a permanent citizen or nationalised Japanese. Until then your request will simply be laughed at. Even small loans could be difficult and don’t be surprised if your account as no overdraft. That said, overdrafts in Japan seem to fall under the “loan” options, with them having you go through some application processes before being able to take out more than is in your account. If you’re in dire straights there are a few loan companies around but use them at your own peril; a few have already been closed down due to dubious practices, extortionate interests and mob connections.

A lot of foreigners also seem to complain about the impossibility of acquiring a credit card. Maybe this has changed in the last few years but I personally had no troubles at all. I suppose it helps if you’re a long-term resident, have a solid, long-term visa and full-time employment, but in my case it was simply the bank asking me if I wanted one and me saying, yeah, alright then, cheers. If you’re fresh off the plane with a one year visa it may not be so easy. Whereas in the west financial institutions are obscenely desperate to get you into debt with them, Japanese banks are still smarting from the collapse of the bubble some decades ago, and are desperate to get any loan repaid in full, as quickly as possible and unwilling to extend any loan to anyone who may possibly default on it; which includes those dirty foreigners who could just jump ship and sod off back home without paying their dues (which does happen, apparently).

In return for such fastidiousness banks clamour for our patronage by plastering expensive idols over their marketing materials and dishing out very juicy interest rates, making themselves as attractive as possible with rates sometimes as high as 0.01%. Nothing is quite as painful as getting an interest payment of a few hundred yen on substantial savings. Banks in Japan really are just a place to store your cash, rather than a place to invest your money in.
On top of that they charge you for ATM withdrawals. On weekdays, during office hours, most ATMs are free, but any time after that some banks start charging for transactions. Maybe on salary days, traditionally the 25th of each month, the free hours are extended, but all in all you’re best off only getting your money out on lunch breaks, if you can stand the massive queues that suddenly form in front of them around 1 o’clock.

ATMs are otherwise fairly decent affairs, often with English language options. If your bank doesn’t have those kinds of machines, make sure to use them at branch offices where very helpful clerks will happily, if in somewhat faltering communication, talk you through the processes. Often the machines work both ways, allowing you to deposit money and coins in too, to pay bills. Some smaller ATM establishments get closed off with shutters late afternoons, though this tradition seems to be on its way out. Utility and phone bills can be paid at almost any convenience store anywhere, which is kind of handy.
Compared to their western, especially British counterparts the banks here look fairly welcoming in interior design. Usually there are no glass prisons for the tellers but a neat row of desks, a ticket machine and a series of comfortable sofas to wait on.

When it comes to spending, or any kind of transaction it seems cold hard cash is still the fashion. Luckily Japan is still safe enough for you to walk about with a small fortune stuffed in your wallet, and people pay for all but the largest purchases with paper; using a credit card for any amount under, say, 30,000 Yen is an oddity, though I doubt anyone will take issue with it. And it is also perfectly acceptable to pay for a 100 Yen pack of beer flavoured candies with a 10,000 Yen note; you will never be asked if you have anything smaller, and your change is given promptly and without fuss, unlike England where such an imposition is greeted with grumbling, cursing or downright refusal.

Surprisingly most of the money here is in very good nick, but even still, if you’re going to give money as a present you should not only put it in a special envelope, you must make sure the notes are clean and crisp. Here banks finally show their true worth as an institution where old bills can be exchanged for new ones for exactly these purposes.

Go to shopping: Mandrake

If your want is manga, anime related toys and any other kind of specialist otaku goods, Mandrake, pronounced as so many of Her Majesty’s loan words in katakana, as “mahn-drah-keh”, is probably a good place to have a gander. They have shelves of any kind of manga you could possibly imagine, yes, including the naughty stuff, more plastic toys than a man can eat and even anime cells.

They have quite a few shops, but I’ve only ever ventured into the Shibuya one, which is down three or four flights of stairs leading to a subterranean dungeon of geekdom. You have to deposit your bags in a locker (100Yen coin needed, refunded when you leave) before you’re allowed to browse the maze of shelves and glass cases containing toys both old and new. Or you could simply have a quiet giggle at the poor staff who often have to dress up in cosplay, or if they’re terribly unlucky, stand on the tiny stage amongst the larger robot toys and butcher karaoke songs. Judging by the “kill me now” look of one cosplay girl I witnessed as she was Shatnering "Fly me to the moon" I am guessing it’s a contractual obligation for all staff, the poor thing.

Akihabara has many shops for such sad hobbies, but the Shibuya branch of Mandrake is fairly well located so that even the uninterested with a slight curiosity can pop in and have a quick look. Some Japanese ability or a lack of self-consciousness is helpful if you want to avoid the embarrassment of accidentally browsing the “male homosexual love story manga aimed at girls” section (eh?), for example. If you can’t flip through the comics because they’re packed in cellophane with a photocopied sheet covering the title page you have probably wandered into the hardcore porn manga section.

Location: Akihabara is on the local Chuo line or the central Yamanote line; Shibuya is on the central Yamanote line as well as many others.
Website: http://www.mandarake.co.jp/
Map: Shibuya branch or Akihabara branch.


Just a quick post to comment on a milestone Japanmanship passed yesterday-ish. 10k hits since its conception in mid-August.* To be honest I have no idea if this is in any way an impressive benchmark in the World of Blog, but I’m happy with it. It shows there is enough interest out there for me to continue to make the effort, to not let it slide too much into a personal soapbox/rant-blog/festering hate-pile. A substantial percentage of hits was in no small way thanks to some kind linking from Game Set Watch and Kotaku and a friendly crowd of industry forum users to whom I remain a humble servant.

Observant readers may have noticed the inclusion of an email address in the side-bar. Feel free to abuse it for fan- and hate-mail, offers of Viagra, blog suggestions and complaints. Also, since I changed the colour scheme of the adverts I found that one in, say, 20 pageloads the sidebars disappears to the bottom of the page. If any other users have this problem, please let me know and I‘ll tinker around with it a bit more.

In the meantime, thank you for your continued patronage and as they say over here “ganbarimasu!”**.


* Well, a few more. The first few weeks of the blog I was using another, inferior statcounter, so it may be a few hits more.
** "I shall do my utmost best to continue in the manner of proud endeavour herein forth or to increase with effort and humility the quality of my output to your honourable satisfaction. "


There are a few tenacious fallacies that are pretty hard to kill, like “working in games is great fun”, “Games are Art” or “JC, you such handsome gaijin”, but none moreso than “Japanese games are more original and creative than Western games” Though I can see where the sentiment comes from, it is not entirely true. There is more room for original games in Japan, yes, but to apply that to the entire industry is just madness.

What is often overlooked in arguments dealing with this issue is that the game industry is just a business, and a business needs to make money. Even in Japan noone sets out to satisfy their muse, to auteur an original game, without looking at or being reminded of the bottom line: will it turn a profit?

So how do original games get made? My guess is that people are just trying their hand at the “next big thing”; hit upon something new, if it sells make more of it. Witness Katamari Damacy. At first a frightfully original concept, and since it sold well enough, Namco wanted more versions, despite the protestations of Mr. Takahashi who never intended it to become a franchise. Only when the returns stopped justifying the expense did Namco pull the plug and dissolve the team. If you think about it Mr. Takahashi must have been very naïve to think Katamari Damacy, if successful, would be a one-off. Or witness the recent closure of Clover Studios, Viewtiful Joe and Ookami were both pretty original and quirky games, but in the end the sales apparently didn’t justify the costs and Capcom dropped the axe.
The history of Japanese development is littered with the corpses of companies trying their hand at originality, while those that “churn out”, as it were, the same old stuff over and over again, still roam the plains. Of course there are a few exceptions to this, but they can be counted on one hand. Even Nintendo wouldn’t chance originality if they hadn’t had the security of proven IP to ensure their solvency. According to reports Brain Training/Brain Age and the original Made in Wario/WarioWare were both initially developed on a shoestring budget in a matter of months. UGA ended up being hard to sustain despite the critical successes of Space Channel 5 and Rez. It’s good to see Mr. Mizuguchi learned his lesson and is using Q Entertainment to also create massively unexciting big-budget mass-appeal brawlers and building on the proven success of Lumines. I certainly hope he’ll create some new concepts too, but the number 1 issue is to remain in business, surely.

That is the motto of the industry; try something new, but do it quickly and cheaply. If it sells we’ll invest more in it, but in the meantime we’re developing RPG Saga XIV.

But what of the public? The Japanese public demands original games, right? Well, let’s have a look at the evidence.
According to the Magic Box the top selling games of 2005 rank amongst the first 10“Animal Crossing DS” (an almost literal remake of the GC version), “Gran Turismo 4”, “Winning Eleven 9”, “Shin Sangoku Musou 4” and “Kingdom Hearts 2”. More recently games like “Final Fantasy 3 DS” sold half a million units in its first four days of release and the new Pokemon DS titles triple that in the first week! Especially the latter is shocking; I asked a colleague who is playing it how it was. “Well, it’s Pokemon, ne…” was his answer. I will bet the farm that the top selling title for the Wii will be Zelda: the Twilight Princess, even though Zelda games haven’t substantially changed, in essence, from the original NES version (though I love them to bits, all the same). I’m going to guess some Evil character with a name starting with “Ganon” will kidnap a princess, and a green-clothed elf must rescue her. A trio of triangles will probably come into play too.
They are still churning out Gundam games because they still sell, despite their decreasing quality over the many years.

Original titles have a chance to sell, like Nintendo’s own efforts with Nintendogs, Brain Training or Talking Cookbook, but there are no guarantees, like the heavily marketed Loco Roco, which apparently shifted too few units.
But what of all those other crazy titles you sometimes hear about in the West? Well, they mostly disappear without a trace or get stacked sideways on crowded shelves for the truly otaku to sniff out. Just because a games website reports on some wacky, zany new Japanese game doesn’t mean the Japanese public is interested in the slightest.

It’s hard to predict if an original title will sell; it’s easy to predict if a previously successful IP will sell more in a sequel in Japan. The choice, for most publishers, is easy.
So why then is there more space for originality in the Japanese market anyway? My educated guess is: budgets. Whereas development budgets have soared over the last few hardware generations, in Japan they are still relatively low, especially compared to America. Trust me, this isn’t meant as a compliment; wages in Japan are much lower and schedules unrealistic, at the cost of the developers’ spare time and health, with “service zangyou” (unpaid overtime) a given in all but the most rare companies. If you try your hand at something new and it fails, well, it hurts in the wallet but it probably won’t bankrupt your company. Also there is more of a sense of the auteur in Japan with studio bosses or producers taking full control over every aspect of a game. Often this translates into “overbearing and destructive influence over a project” but sometimes it turns into an “inspired leadership that fosters the creativity of every team member and turns it into something special”.

Lastly it may also be the lack of undue influence the PR and sales team have over the project. In the west you still hear projects being redesigned because the marketing department fears they won’t be able to sell the original idea. Character design, art direction, game design can all be affected by a marketing department with too much power and too little interest in doing its job properly. Japan, however, more often than not seems to have the right balance. The sales and marketing team gets brought into the office when the game development has progressed far enough and gets shown what it will be like. Then the team will go out and try to sell/market that. This is how marketing should work, and often in Japan it does. So in the west a lazy marketing department may get shown a concept for an original title and demand changes, or they won’t guarantee good sales. In Japan the marketing department gets shown an almost finished product and told to go out and sell it. A lazy marketing team has no time or power to kill originality.

So in conclusion, yes, on the whole probably more original games get made in Japan than in the west, but only a few of them are any good and even fewer sell enough to make it worthwhile. Stop putting the Japanese industry on a pedestal because they come up with crazy titles occasionally. And have a little more pride in your homegrown efforts. Sim City and the Sims, Civilisation, GTA3, The Movies, Rollercoaster Tycoon, all very original games, all commercially successful, all made in the west and above all they’re great games. Just because they don’t feature a simian encased in a plastic bubble, or a 50 foot tall robot manned by a slip of a girl in a maid’s outfit armed with a machine gun set in ancient feudal Japan with a half-cat half-rabbit sidekick doesn’t mean they are any less worthy of your praise and attention.
And above all, go out and buy original games and make the prospect of investing in new ideas a financially attractive proposition for publishers, both in Japan and in the west!

The Guttural Fricative

To complain about the customs of your host country while holding up your own as the standard is an act of purest, supercilious idiocy; one cannot expect to enter into another culture and demand coherence to your own mores; a certain amount of compliance and tolerance is an absolute necessity. There is however one thing that I particularly dislike about Japanese etiquette, one thing that I would like changed more than anything else. I can learn to live with the busy trains, I can accept bad television by simply not watching it, I can deal with discrimination no matter how beneficial it is to me、 I can even tolerate the open-mouthed gum chewing that seems to be so popular over here, but the one thing I cannot stop myself turning up my nose to in the most snooty manner is the way the Japanese open their throats to let out anything that is bothering them regardless of who sees it or receives the brunt of it

According to the evidence Japanese people are not taught to cover their mouths when coughing. This results in common scenes of people visibly barking into the thin air at any location or occasion. It’s bad enough on the streets when, once, I walked past a guy at the precise moment he coughed, painting a tableau not entirely dissimilar to the image above. A stern look and a deadly aimed “tsk” didn’t faze the perpetrator in the slightest. Or there was the time I was waiting in line at my local favourite bread shop, the objects of my desire, lusciously cheese-filled potato bread pouches stacked on the counter, when the old geezer in front of me, in the middle of ordering, felt the need to let out a cough and cover said foodstuffs with a spray of spittle and disease. That day I bought cellophane wrapped sandwiches.
Nothing is more off-putting than sneaking a left-handed lecherous glance at that cute girl in the coffee shop just at the moment she barks into the air like a stricken chihuahua. One can feel the disease creeping nearer when there is a cold flu going round and your colleagues are liberally covering their monitors with a thin film of phlegm left and right of you.

Spitting too seems to be the prerogative of the old geezer. When walking the streets or sitting on my balcony to have a quiet cigarette one can often hear what at first sounds like a miniature car crash shortly followed by an evacuation and a wet splat. It’s not simply the freeing of some excess phlegm, they really put their heart and soul into it, hacking and scraping up all the goo they can muster, letting out not a drop of spittle but a veritable glob of mucus that explodes as it hits the pavement.

There are too many good things about Japan to let this ruin your stay, but in stead of the cute, but doomed to fail, train manner posters or the hilariously Engrish considerate smoking campaigns, maybe a course or two of hygiene etiquette and simple mouth-covering techniques could improve the living conditions and health of the massive Tokyo populace.

There, I said it. I feel better now. Sorry.

Go to shopping: Kiddy Land

Harajuku is a great and convenient place for the tourist to visit; all those kids dressed up in weird Lolita-goth outfits, young trendy shops, a nice temple and a park, it has it all. But the one true destination must be the 6 storey toyshop located roughly in the middle of the large street, Meiji Dori, that leads away from Harajuku station.

Though Kiddy Land has a lot of branches here and there, the Harajuku shop I think is biggest and attracts crowds of kids and old-enough-to-know-better foreigners. Its 6 floors are separated into themes, from general toys and holiday themed items on the ground floor to video games and merchandise, character goods, girls’ toys, five foot tall Tororo dolls, Super Mario Bros. key chains, Barbie, Miffy, army-themed Lego rip-offs, real American porn-star talking figurines, toy karaoke microphones, once even a solid gold 1 million yen miniature Porsche model, you name it… It truly is a paradise of play, a mecca of merchandise, and other alliterations too!

If you’re looking for specialized manga or anime figurines or toys there are better places to go, in Akihabara for instance, but if you’re up for a general drinking in of ambiance, a giddy shopping tour to buy your kids or yourself something only available in Japan, or if you’re just sick of visiting temple after temple, Kiddy Land Harajuku is the place to go.

Location: Harajuku Station is on the central Yamanote line, one stop from Shibuya. If you walk there from Shibuya you can follow the narrow trendy shopping street which ends on Meiji Dori right next to Kiddy Land.
Website: http://www.kiddyland.co.jp/index.html
Map: here

NOTE: There once was a time when you could have a rest and a drink to recuperate from your shopping spree at Rodney’s Café in the backstreets across the road from Kiddy Land. This happy, colourful café was designed by Rodney Greenblat, the genius designer behind Parappa the Rapper and many other fantastic characters. They served things like “Probably the world’s best coffee” or sandwiches shaped like Thunder Bunny. Even the toilets were bright and happy and had toilet paper holders shaped like crocodile mouths and whatnot. Sadly it seems to have closed down a few years ago, probably because, even with a highly detailed map, it was impossible to find.

The one true God

As a staunch anti-theist I can’t help but have a grudging respect for the Japanese attitude towards religion, which essentially boils down to “yeah, sure, whatever you want, go for it”
Probably because Japan’s own religion Shinto has no dogma, their willingness to adopt and adapt other religions is a big part of the culture. Within one family you can have a Christian wedding, Shinto celebrations and a Buddhist funeral; the choice of which religion to use for what is solely based on personal preference or the fashion of the moment. Someone may like the pomp of a Christian wedding, well, then have one. Someone may feel obliged to follow the Shinto wedding ceremony, well, go right ahead.

Although there are no official Christian holidays, like Easter or Christmas, there is a mix of Shinto and Buddhist holidays and ceremonies throughout the year. Christmas had been adopted but is fairly different; no presents, no trees in the house even though they will be everywhere in decorations in shops and streets, no official days off, price hikes in restaurants. Some pagan festivals have also been adapted, like Halloween. It’s a real mixed melting pot and it means very little.

Even though, as everybody knows, Jesus escaped crucifixion, made his way east, and ended up in Japan where he married and had three daughters and is buried here in Aomori, in Shingo (I kid you not!) Christianity has, apart from a church here and there, very little influence in Japan with supposedly less than 1% of the people following its teachings. Possibly because Japan already has a sense of social obligation and guilt built into their subconscious, the threat of eternal damnation and other fiery fairy stories didn’t really make an impact. Besides, I can’t think of a more effective depiction of Hell than the train during my morning commute, something Dante seems to have overlooked; and seeing as most people can cope with that in one form or another the threat of painful eterniy is, in a sense, an act of purest sisyphusicity, so to speak.

Religion in daily life, though, doesn’t seem to have much more effect than the occasional visit to the local temple for the New Year, which is an ordeal in itself. For the first few days of January one is supposed to visit the local temple, throw some money to the gods and pray for good fortune. I was once told by a monk that the gods are fairly selfish and it’s best to pray first and then throw the money to ensure they’ll keep paying attention to your wants and wishes. That’s not something you’ll ever hear he pope say, is it? Indivisibility is a good thing, so throw coins with holes in (5 or 50 yen – five yen, pronounced “go en” is a homophone for the word for “karma”).. At the temple you also bring back last year’s arrow and pick up this year’s one; an enma showing the animal of the year, according to Chinese zodiac, to be put in the hallway of your home. Don’t forget to light some incense and waft the smoke over your head (for increased intelligence), chest (for health or wallet (what do you think?). All in all it’s more ceremony than belief.

The scariest aspect of religion in Japan is the presence and apparent success of cults. Aum Shinrikyo, for example, is still around, and though they promised they have changed since the underground gas attacks and the police are keeping a close watch on them I really don’t feel safe with these freaks around. And occasionally on television there will be a news report about some new cult, and we are treated to images of people in white jump suits and face masks who cover all the windows in their portacabins and vans with newspapers. Some cults even run hotels, although the average foreigner is quite safe of brainwashing; a language barrier is there to protect you.

Of course the one True Religion is that of Celebrity. The lucky person who is flavour of the month can expect many followers to copy their fashions and hairstyle and make pilgrimages to the important places of their lives, as well as stand in line for hours to welcome them at the airport. Whether it is soccer star (sic.) Beckham (“Be-chan”), Korean actor Yong-sama (note the honorific!) or the Japanese winner of any recent event (football, K1, ice skating, Miss Universe, etc.) the celebrity of the moment will have constant TV coverage and his or face plastered on calendars, key chains, television specials and plastic crap.
These Gods are far from immortal, though, and are soon replaced with the next new thing. There are some tenacious hangers on, like the horrendously vapid, dog-faced, plastically “enhanced” Kano sisters (pictured left) who assert themselves onto the scene despite their lack of a distinguishable talent or the populace’s subconscious wish to just ignore them.

So, in summary, the religious foreigner in Japan will probably find a welcome place to practice his little traditions. No one will persecute you for it, and maybe a lot of people will even be curious and ask you to teach them a little. Don’t expect to be a missionary though; people are busy enough without having to worry about appeasing some Creator. For the non-religious you’ll find a peaceful life too. Nobody will assert their religion upon you and in my time in Japan only once did a Jehovah’s Witness dare disturb me at the door, but she was quickly scared away by my foreignness and temporary Japanese amnesia. It also makes participating in ceremonies do-able; you won’t have to feel hypocritical for joining in when you don’t believe, it really doesn’t mean that much; but it’s worth it occasionally, the temples are beautiful.

The difference

Apparently there is a law that states anyone with a blog that deals with games must, pro bono publico, write an editorial on his or her perception of the differences between Japanese and western games. To fulfill this remit I will reluctantly have a go today, but keep in mind that this is highly subjective and possibly wrong; many people have tried and failed to nail it down. If you think me ignorant as a kish of brogues or have your own opinion which isn’t covered here, feel free to leave a comment.
Let’s get this over with.

Story vs. Gameplay
One of the most glaring differences, visible not only in the charts but fairly obvious when speaking to Japanese game players is the fact most Japanese prefer to be told or led along by a story. So much emphasis goes on story, in fact, that I have witnessed initial pitch meetings where nothing but story was discussed – not even game mechanics. Even brawlers and fighting games have a story that, despite their usual pulpy and simplistic nature, probably had more time spent on them during development than you may think.
When I asked a colleague about this he spun me rather with an unarguable reply; “well, we like story in films and books, don’t you? Why not in games?” I couldn’t really answer that. “What about the interactivity inherent in the medium?” I asked. He brushed it off with what is probably the Japanese equivalent of “medium schmedium” (the idea of a Yiddish Japanese person intrigues me, were it not an impossibility).

3rd person vs. 1st person
Following on from the above, it explains the love for 3rd person perspectives in Japanese games. A lot of tosh has been argued about possible genetic differences and the Japanese inability to deal with 1st person perspective, which is all poppycock. If the Japanese generally suck at FPS games it is probably because they’re simply not used to them, what with most of the popular games here taking a different view. Have your mother play Halo, she will probably not be very good at it; is that because she is genetically incapable? No, of course not.
The difference here is again to do with storytelling. The western public wants to be immersed, to become the character in the game and make decisions and actions that have an effect on the game world. The Japanese want to follow the story and see what is happening.

Character vs. Customisation
Following on yet further, it also explains the general lack of customisation in Japanese games. More and more often do we see character creation in games in the west; apart of course from FPS games where it isn’t really necessary, but certainly in RPGs. The player wants to decide who to become, in his own time, his own actions, his own trousers. The idea doesn’t really seem to attract the Japanese. At the very best they’ll make do with costume changes, but when you follow a story you don’t want to have to make your own characters. It’s a bit like watching a film with the main character blacked out so you can imagine what he’d be like yourself.

Androgynous and troubled loner vs. butch macho bullyboy
Character design is a major issue in Japan. Famous character designers get followed around, have books published, sell units, whereas in the west this task is usually done by the concept artists with mandated changes by the publishers, who may or may not know what they are talking about. This is probably why pretty much all western game characters are two dimensional and interchangeable, with few notable exceptions. It doesn’t explain, however, why all Japanese characters look decidedly androgynous and ageless. It is incredibly hard for westerners to grasp what characters will be successful in Japan. I’ve been through a few character designs with colleagues and though to me some looked identical, my colleagues were quick to point out the cool from the crap.
One thing that never works is when westerners try to ape Japanese characters. Look at games like Sudeki, which has terrible character designs; neither western nor Japanese, though obviously trying to be the latter it fails miserably. Why? Shape of the hands, general form of the face, overall design; it’s difficult to pin down. The lesson here is that if you plan to create characters specifically for the Japanese market, swallow your pride and just get in some Japanese artists. They know what they’re doing.

IP vs. IP
Though Z-grade quick-buck licensed games are a dime a dozen in the west, they do also appear in Japan. IP is important and sells units. There has, for example, not been a decent Gundam game for ages, yet they still make them, they still sell them. Usually a few of my colleagues end up buying the latest game and without fail will complain about how awful it is, “like the previous one”. Yet they still go out and get it, because Japan loves Gundam. Characters like Kitty-chan (Hello Kitty) get crowbarred into puzzle game formats, and on rare occasions the massively popular talento or drama actor may find himself inserted in a game in the hope to shift more units.
In essence the ideas are the same; you don’t need to spend a lot of money and manpower on making something good, the IP will sell it, but the subjects are obviously very different. Japan has its own reservoir of beloved characters; western film licenses do get a look in but can’t compete with Japan’s own usually.
Obviously Japan has a better track record of exporting game IPs to other media than the west has. Pokemon is the obvious example, from game to anime to film to merchandise. Even the west’s examples of game-inspired films have mostly been based on Japanese games. The who, what or why of this is a bit of a mystery to me, though it may go back to the whole idea of story. It’s easier to translate a game with a story to the big screen than an FPS with open-ended gameplay. How Pokemon fits in this is anybody’s guess.

Train driver vs. Space Marine of Death and Blood
Often weird little games like Tokyo Bus Driver or Densha de Go appear in Japan and are looked upon as examples of whacky creativity. They’re not, though; they’re simple wish fulfillment games. Becoming a train driver is still regarded as a dream job by many children (and fathers with unfulfilled dreams). The Japanese don’t dream of becoming a “gangsta niggah” and killing wave after wave of innocent pedestrians with a variety of automatic weaponry. As games are escapist toys it naturally means that each country has its own particular fantasies it wants to live out digitally; in the west it’s the tough loner with a ridiculous name who saves the world from invading outsiders through ultra-violence, in Japan it’s the quiet loner, still waters that run deep, who saves the world from an ancient awakening evil through magic and being cool. Oh, and the ability to do the job they would really like do be doing in real life, from bus driver to airplane pilot, from baseball star to sexually deviant mahjongg master.

Saturation vs. brown (now blue)
It is true that artistic sensibilities are very different, even if you ignore general settings and character design. Brighter colours are good, whereas in the US they can be considered “gay” for some strange and obviously homophobic reason. Though there are kids’ and adults’ games, they are not divided by saturation. The inability to grasp the Japanese way of art by westerners is mutual. Many Japanese don’t really get the “gritty realism” of western games, which often translates to desaturated brown, and recently scifi blue hues. I was even told once that westerners have more sensitive eyes (not being brown in colour) which is why Japanese games must be desaturated a little during localization. It took this colleague a lot of convincing to make him see this was utter bullshit, and in the end I don’t think I really succeeded. A Japanese person can appreciate the beauty of western games, the exquisite craftsmanship, but that doesn’t mean they’ll enjoy playing with it so much. Similarly, just upping the saturation in your games won’t automatically make them attractive to the Japanese. They have a very culturally distinct taste and appreciation of colours that goes far beyond the differences in meaning (red = good, blue = bad, for example). Certain colour schemes speak more to the Japanese than others, and even after my half a decade in Japan I am sometimes still baffled by this; though I do occasionally get it right, more by luck than my design.

What a rambling mess, my apologies for that. In conclusion I’d say that as a developer you can and should put in certain elements to attract other markets but if you plan to make a fully Japanese game it will be difficult, though not impossible. Work closely with your Japanese publisher and listen to their feedback. Hire in a few Japanese designers or artists to tackle the big issues. And keep your fingers crossed.

But it’s done now; I need never dwell on it again.

Japanese TV, the revenge

Seeing as I’ve wasted a couple of posts lending the weight of my tongue to Japanese comedy and talentos I thought it’d be only fair to write at least one post on the merits of Japanese television, which though few, do exist.

Ai no Apron
This show plucks a trio of talentos from a massive pool of talentlessness and makes them cook a particular dish, which is then tasted by a panel of idols and cooks who judge them. Obviously they play up a little and cook as bad a meal as possible; no one is stupid enough to really think French toast is garnished with liberal helpings of salt or to put raw shrimp in a Crème Brule. But still, it makes interesting viewing, especially because the panel are possibly contractually obliged to take big spoonfuls of the dishes; no messing about with little nibbles, dig in, take a mouthful and eat. And then retch. If a meal is particularly bad the panelists can run to the “ai no bucket”. Afterwards the talentos are judged by having their names put on a board where the vertical position equates quality. In recent times this has become silly, beginning with names being put underneath the board, far away from the board and eventually even seeing a panelist walk outside of the studio and handing the name card to a passerby asking them to deposit it somewhere far outside Tokyo.

The Ai No Apron website is here.

Possibly the most evil and therefore funniest program on television sees a panel (what else?) visit and discuss the living arrangements of very poor people. First we are shown a photo of a poor target, a breakdown of his monthly income and some personal details after which one of the panelists visits their house and does a lot of “eeeHHHH??”ing and “aaaahhhhh!”ing about how they live. One time they visited the house of a student who had never thrown out the rubbish, his house filled waist-deep with plastic bags, his bed a bedroll thrown over a few sacks of empty beer cans. Or one time there was a very old geezer who basically sustained himself by living in a shed and making his own food from the plants and herbs around him. Or the student who shared a house with a few others, living, as he did, in the cupboard usually reserved for futons. The subjects are invited to the studio and the panel picks a winner based on criteria I am not fully aware of. A lot of hilarity and finger pointing ensues.

Half of a Zenikin episode with links to more here.

London Boots
London boots are those knee-length platform boots Shibuya girls like to wear when they’re feeling particularly masochistic. It is also the name of a Japanese comedy duo that display a kind of evil black humour that most Brits should be able to appreciate. Their best segment usually revolves around setting up a guy with a loose girl (actress) to see if she can seduce him, while the man’s girlfriend or wife sits backstage with the duo as they broadcast instructions to the actress. Then follows the big reveal and we watch he man back-pedal and apologise and be generally humiliated. Another segment they have pits the two sides of a fighting couple in a giant metal-barred arena where they have to fight out their differences, only verbally, in front of a ravenous and laughing crowd. Though I often want to see blood, hearing the two bitch about each others’ shortcomings is diverting enough.

The Lonboo website (”Amazing and big fun") is here.

Sumo is something you really need to see live. The atmosphere is great, a mix between a cheap izakaya and a sports event; you’ll sit watching big men push each other while consuming chicken and beer. Sadly however the seats are a little expensive, but if you do go I recommend either the very first tournament day of the year, where you’ll see the emperor do his royal wave to the crowd, or the last day of a tournament period, where if you’re lucky you may see the reigning champ be toppled amidst a rain of pillows.
Luckily sumo on television is no less exciting. Though the stereotype is that the wrestlers are all big fat men in nappies that merely push each other if you witness the brute force of an initial clash and start to learn about the many techniques involved it becomes an engrossing, even addictive, sport to watch. My personal favourites are usually the smaller wrestlers who rely on technique and reflexes to battle the giants. The sumo roundup is the one thing I will always try to watch on television.

The sumo website is here.

Sometimes on national holidays Japanese television airs specials:; these are usually the things you see on trashy, sensationalist foreign television as an example of how crazy and whacky the Japanese are. From crazy sports events to hilarious programs like “Silent Library”, these are usually worth a giggle.

A hilarious episode of "Silent Library" can be found here; though I have no idea when this was broadcast it is exactly the kind of madness you see on national holiday specials.

Apart from the sumo, which is regular fare during the tournament seasons, I haven’t watched much television recently so I don’t know which of these shows is still being broadcast. But at least you should know that amidst the cooking related panel-shows and Korean dramas there is something worth watching on occasion. One thing to remember when watching any of the clips above is that all those noises, bells, whistles and graphics…that is normal Japanese television. You get immune to it pretty quickly but it may be a bit much at first.

Wiimote Remote

Club Nintendo strikes again as this week it sent out the Wiimote Remotes it promised its “Platinum members” roughly a year ago. “Gold members” were given, for gratis, a Nintendo 2006 Calendar, and “Platinum members”, of which I was very surprised to find myself to be one, the calendar and a television remote control shaped exactly like the Wiimote.

The reasons it took so long, I guess, is because there have been several design changes to the controller in the last year, mostly cosmetic. Also, Nintendo is now ramping up its marketing machine for the Wii launch at the end of the year with a Nintendo World event planned in November. See more details here .

The remote control is fun. The D-pad up and down changes the channels, left and right the volume. The “-“ button flips through the televisions AV channels,, “+” mutes, and “home” sets the timer. “a” and “b” as ell as the “B” trigger don’t seem to do anything on my television. The instructions show how you can set the remote to be used for a variety of televisions. Nice stuff. The only real difference is that the speaker is purely cosmetic, and the connector or the joystick pad is sealed off. Otherwise in shape at least it is the Wiimote.

I have still to decide if I’m going to the Nintendo World event. I’ll probably be in the final stages of crunch by then, and besides, I’ve already played most of the demos. Still, I might make time just to gauge the strength of their marketing. For Club Nintendo members I think the remote is an excellent little item to get people hyped up for the launch.

A complete guide to becoming a talento

Women who are thinking of becoming comediennes should forget it and remember their place in society. Though occasionally a woman can make it in comedy, these women are strange and will never find themselves a suitable husband. Women have a place on television and that place is next to the presenter, as eye-candy or simply to be laughed at or be helpless.

Firstly you have to be either cute or have big breasts. To be both easy on the eye and busty is the ideal but either is fine. Neither is unacceptable and a career as an office lady awaits you until you snag a husband at which point you can become a professional shopper; but television is not for you.

To start your first step towards talentodom you will probably have to do some photo shoots for teenager magazines or titillation books for middle-aged men. Don’t be shy;. you can wear tiny bikinis to cover your shame until you’re old enough to bare all (18). At this point you must hope to be spotted by some television or music producer.

If you get invited to appear on television you must master the most important aspect of talentodom: the Pose. Bend out your hips sideways, bend your neck as if you’re trying to peer under your bed while standing upright and do the two-fingered wave with both hands all the while keeping a toothless grin on your face. If the grin starts to hurt you can also do a pout on occasion. If you master this Pose your route to talentodom will be a quick and easy one!
If, God forbid, you have to speak on television, maybe give your opinion on some food on a panel show or something, be sure to affect a childrens’ manga voice. Men like high-pitched voices like those of a four year old.

At some point in your career you may want to release a single. Even if you can’t sing, don’t worry about it too much. The most important thing is to meet some producers or video directors so you can marry one.

By the time you have flashed your bosom and pouting face on television a few times you can fall into the panel-show routine. Once you get older and your looks fade and sag there are a few routes you can follow. Stick with the panel shows. People will get used to seeing you there and don’t mind so much that you’re now undesirable. Occasionally you can even participate in retrospective shows about how cute you used to be, and that one song you released before marrying the video director. Alternatively, you can age gracelessly and surgically enhance your bosom to outrageous proportions. It may be uncomfortable but at least it’ll give the public something to stare at and hopefully forget how talentless you are. Or you can start a range of beauty products; even if your face won’t launch a half-dozen ships anymore, you can always sell it on the strength of your former beauty.
At all times, though, remember the pose and the child’s voice!

Good luck with your career as televisual eye-candy for the masses! Do not underestimate the importance of the role! Talentos fulfill a very useful task on television as they strut their stuff and pout at the camera while the announcer goes through the list of sponsors. They also fill seats on panel-shows, and without those the world as we know it would not be able to sustain itself.
Go forth, proud fleshpot and remember to bend forward occasionally!

The cast – 7. QA

At the few companies that have enjoyed my employment QA, or Quality Assurance, has been remarkably absent as a department. That is not to say there was no bug checking at all, but that it was usually outsourced and done by the team itself.
A tradition of Japanese development seems to be to dump a devkit on the desks of those that have or are about to finish their tasks for the project and have them check for bugs; not only their own parts but the whole game. I personally have no qualms about testing my own work, but if the project lingers on you’ll find yourself playing the game for weeks, if not months, and that is a very soul crushing experience.

When QA is outsourced it seems to go to regular outsource companies, that also provide art assets or FMV, and occasionally to smaller, befriended companies that need some extra work to remain solvent. There is a danger therefore that if you apply to tiny companies your services may be hired out as a tester when times are slow.

If you’re planning a career in QA in Japan you may be barking up the wrong tree. Like back in the west general QA staff are usually graduates and work cheaply. If you’re going for a managerial QA position your Japanese will have to be very good (read and write reports, communicate with the development team or their producer, etc.) that you are probably better off using your linguist skills in a better paid position in, for example, localization. Or climb up the career ladder back home, get some development experience and try your hand in Japan in planning or producing.

As I said, few companies have in-house QA departments, so you’re limited to smaller development houses, for which you’d need another applicable skill, or outsource companies, of which I have little experience other than dealing with them indirectly. As for salaries, that’d be anybody’s guess but I’ll be very surprised if it amounts to anything much.

The quality of QA in Japan is good enough though. I wouldn’t say it’s due to professionalism but rather a sense of duty that bug reports are filled in properly, and are usually stamped (signed) by multiple people to track back the chain of command. As a result you are mercifully spared the “silly arse” bugs or the “hear ye my opinion” bugs. Again, as a developer, your dealing with the bugs will probably go through an eXcel file and will tax your Japanese abilities.

A complete guide to Japanese comedy

To fully appreciate, understand and become a Japanese comedian there are a few simple steps you must follow.

Step 1: Choose a partner and assign roles
Though not exclusively so, Japanese comedy works best as a duo. Find someone equally broke and desperate for fame as you and pair up. One of you needs to be the straight man, the other needs to be the straight man who occasionally hits the other straight man. A roll of the dice or a game of rock, paper, scissors is good enough a method as any to decide on this.

Step 2: Choose a prop
You can’t have good comedy without a prop. One will be enough. It doesn’t really matter what the prop is, as it won’t be the source of the comedy but merely an item you will hopefully be identified with. It can be any household item, any form of female clothing (women should read the upcoming “guide to becoming a talento” and steer clear of comedy), any kind of homosexual leather gear, etc.

Step 3: Choose a name
This part is easy. Check your driver’s licenses. The entry under “name” can be the name of your act. Or, if you’re avant-garde you could choose to be identified with the name of the prop you chose.

Step 4 Choose a punch line
This is actually a two part process. First you need a line; this can be anything and shouldn’t really refer to anything else. Choose something like “Fol-de-rol and a hey nonny nonny”, “Eisenhower was my uncle” or “Tuesday is pick-up day!” Memorise this line because you will need to repeat it often.
Secondly you need to invent a silly dance step. Just wave your arms about and make a few steps left and right, but make sure it ends in a pose, which you can hold as the audience is wiping away their tears of laughter.

Step 5: The act
Get invited to a television studio, like for example a new comedians’ debutant show. Start the act by saying something apt relating to a current event or, preferably, some talent present in the studio. This could be something like “Look, Presenter-san is wearing glasses; glasses and a blue suit!” or “Today ex-prime minister Koizumi-san visited the dentist!” or better yet “I don’t like Ramen!”
Follow this up immediately with your punch-line and silly dance, remembering to end in a pose. Bask in the howls and shrieks of laughter from the audience and presenters.

Step 6: Fingers crossed
Pray to your God that people will pick up on the punch-line! Try to get invited to as many panel-shows as possible. Make sure you are dirt cheap so you can be hired to sit in when more important guests drop out in favour of competing in quiz shows, and important task which can’t be left to members of the public..

Step 7: Build a career
If you are lucky enough people will be quoting your catch phrase. At this point you will be invited to do commercials, television shows, PR events and supermarket openings as long as you use your special dance and punch-line at every opportune moment.

Step 8: Enjoy your retirement
After three months of glory and fame the public is ready for the next big thing. You can now enjoy an easy retirement as a judge on shows for other debutant comedians or a guest on panel-shows about restaurants. If you’re lucky you may even be sent out to taste food in restaurants for other panel-show members to watch and get excited by.

Congratulations! You now have all he knowledge you need to become a successful Japanese comedian!

Go to shopping: Super Potato

Super Potato (“Get your wonder soft world”、whatever the duce that is supposed to mean) is one of those shops you need to know about. Though it is located fairly centrally in Akihabara, Tokyo’s Geek Central, and has a continuous loop of tinny 8-bit music blasting from tiny speakers near the entrance and a massive billboard at 3rd floor level, it is easy to miss the, what in a foreign country would be, scary, deep hallway leading to the shop, wedged in between two other establishments.

Super Potato is a shop, nay, a shrine to retro gaming. It not only offers shelves and shelves of old game cartridges, often unboxed, for classic systems like Genesis, NES, SNES, Atari, MSX and whatnot, it also has a fine collection of peripherals and merchandise. It doesn’t always come cheap, but where else can you find Mario-themed Nintendo playing cards, Bomberman key chains, the original Game & Watch LCD games or the actual classic consoles? As well as Mario Kart RC karts, pixel-graphic peg board toys, soundtrack music CDs, Nintendo hanafude cards, calendars, etc.
Though some of these are also available in regular toy shops, and some of the retro games can also be found in second-hand shops Super Potato offers a convenient one-stop geek shop hop.

Any self-respecting geek should visit this establishment on their visit to Japan. If you’re in Akihabara you won’t have to go out of your way, and if Akihabara isn’t on your itinerary where the Hell do you get the nerve calling yourself a geek in the first place?

Location: Akihabara can be reached via the Yamanote line or the local Chuo line.
Website: http://www.superpotato.com
Map: here

(Readers may rightly point out that my posts and entire blog are very Tokyo-centric. I cannot deny this. Super Potato has branches in Osaka and some other places; I simply don’t know anything about these so writing them up would be a bit useless)

The cast – 6. The lead

Like the previously covered senior position the lead role doesn’t differ significantly from its western counterpart. Duties include scheduling, decision-making, team management, task allocation, all that funky jazz. The Japanese lead may find himself in meeting after meeting, probably moreso than the western lead, but that is more due to the Japanese developers’ love for and dependency on meetings than the actual role itself. Whereas regular team members only attend the meetings that specifically cover something relating to their discipline, the lead will have to contribute to any meeting that could possibly affect the area of his work; which usually means everything. Planning, graphics, programming all have an effect on each other so the lead will probably have to attend all of them.

On top of that he will have to deal with, and probably work on, the previously mentioned XL files that comprise the design of the game; from asset lists to scheduling, a lot of dry digital paperwork will have to be written and read. The lead will have little chance of doing actual work, an art lead will have little time for art creation, in stead organizing the art team and the assets they have created, as does the lead programmer for his team.

Leads are usually promoted from the seniors available, although they are also sometimes hired in from the outside. Again the decision is usually based on the applicant’s longevity rather than skill. It is often painful to watch a good senior be promoted to lead where his talents are underused. In my current company for example after one lead quit, the next senior in line was pushed into this position; though he is good at it, he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it so much, as he really wants to be creating rather than managing. These kinds of promotions don’t automatically come with a pay rise; after a while the wages may be adjusted, after the candidate has proven himself. Or rather, that is the usual standpoint, but it sounds more like a cheeky way of keeping expenses down in the short term.

As a result Japanese ability is an absolute must. You simply won’t get by on beginner’s level. The many meetings, as well as the many documents and the communication with the rest of the team are the main bulk of your job, and if your Japanese is rubbish, well, you are going to be rubbish at your job. But does that mean foreigners are excluded from this position? Not at all. Yours truly was promoted to lead in a previous company and I have also met a few other foreign leads. It is good to have the title but the work is very tiring as you must lead by example. If the lead pisses off without working overtime it will reflect badly on the whole team, especially if they do work late into the night. Hours are usually mandated by unwritten and unspoken pressure from management so a lead isn’t in a position to make the team go home at a humane hour.

So being a lead is good for the resume but it doesn’t put you in a position to make creative decisions much. It will help you move into a higher wage scale, but again it is pittance compared to the same position back home. And if you are to have a chance of landing this job, you had better be hitting those books and study until you are a competent Japanese speaker.

It never rains but it pours

This is just a quick post to explain the decreasing quality and regularity of posts in recent days and probably continuing into the near future. I’m probably giving away the inspiration to my last post, but crunch has hit. 14 hour days, weekends, this coming Monday’s national holiday, it’s all bad. Usually I hammer out my posts during my lunch break, then refine and post them from home. These days even lunch is a hurried affair. When I get home I hardly have enough time for dinner, a monkey bath (a bath so hot you make involuntary monkey sounds when stepping into it) or laying out my clothes for the next day, before I force myself to get to bed already if I stand any chance of getting up the next morning.

And what’s more, today was freezing cold with a massive, continuous downpour of rain and strong winds. Had I the time to check the television I might have learned if it was a typhoon or not, as Japan gets about 20 orso of these a year. It certainly felt like it. And on top of that my left shoe has sprung a leak, causing not only my sock and foot to get wet but it makes a surprisingly loud squelching sound every alternate step.

I actually have Sunday off, whoopee-do, so I‘ll try to post something a little more substantial then. Thank you for your patience!

In search of lost time

Crunch, the period before a deadline when everybody has to put in the extra hours just to get things finished on time, is as much a staple of Japanese game development as it is in the west. It may even be worse here as nobody is making any kind of effort to combat it, like a few good managers and legal suits in the west have managed.

Japanese schedules, especially if you’re working for a quick-buck developer or publisher, can be insanely tight. From what I remember from a previous life, last-gen projects in the UK were scheduled around 18 months to two years. You can easily halve that for Japan, current-gen. As a result there are a few outsource companies as well as developers hiring out their staff for outsource work in lean times.
That doesn’t mean, obviously, there is no strain on the in-house team, but with already outrageous working hours you may wonder if crunch really makes much of an impression on your average Japanese worker. In a sense, yes it does. In yet another, no, it doesn’t.

When alpha or any other arbitrary deadline approaches people stay in even later, sometimes even staying overnight. However, this takes its toll and eventually to compensate people will come in a little later. So in a sense the working day is slightly prolonged and shifted a few hours. Staying overnight doesn’t mean more work gets done, of course. People fall asleep at their desk at some point in the night and wake up some time during the next morning, often after other colleagues have come in and started work already. No one can live on just a few hours sleep so little naps during the day are not uncommon. We all know tired employees work less efficiently than rested ones so in the end the amount of work done doesn’t really make any giant leaps, if any forward movement is there at all.

What does happen during crunch is that the usually decision-shy Japanese eventually get to finalise things. While you are refining and redoing a lot of stuff during the regular periods, during crunch there is a higher chance of being able to put a full-stop behind some things. For the upcoming deadline anyway.

But is crunch avoidable? Of course it is, with good management, working practices and common bloody sense but don’t expect those to be introduced into the industry any time soon. As a foreigner, of course, you can get away with more and avoiding crunch should be possible. The most important thing is to get your work done on time, and if you can manage that there is no reason to stay nights. But if you walk in in the mornings and see your colleagues, husbands and fathers, sleeping at their desks you must be pretty heartless not to feel sorry for them, and as a result you may force yourself to put in the extra hours anyway. Yes, it is their own responsibility and it shouldn’t really have any effect on you, but sometimes, for moral quietude, you may find yourself burning the candle at both ends.
Don’t expect to be rewarded for this though. Though working hours can have an effect on your bonus, you won’t receive any special bonuses on top of that, except maybe to see your extra time transferred into daikyuu, (paid holidays in lieu), at your boss’s discretion. If you count the extra hours you put in and the time off you get in return, it probably won’t match up.

You may also be asked to work weekends. Your boss won’t demand, as that is a bit too strong for the Japanese, but they will ask; which means it’s a demand, really. You could play the “cultural divide” card and say “ok, well, no then, I won’t”, or force your lead to say “it’s okay, you don’t have to” by asking him specifically. He will want to say “yes, you must!” but probably won’t. Legally they cannot touch you, but don’t be surprised if this turns into blotch on your escutcheon eventually, which may crop up again around bonus time or during contract renegotiations.

I, personally, absolutely refuse to work nights. I did do it a few times a few years back, but these days my aged mind and body simply can’t cope. If I work through the night I need a few days of solid sleep to recuperate immediately after and that is often not a possibility. I don’t mind working the odd weekend, as long as that is immediately repaid in daikyuu. I also don’t mind working late on occasion but if things get too bad I always use the “I have plans for tonight” excuse to get out of the office while I still can; it’s basically my way of saying “I have a life, you know!”

Crunch, sadly, is a big part of game development in Japan, and that won’t change any time soon. It’s your choice to follow that route or not. As I mentioned earlier it is advisable to choose you battles carefully. On the one hand flat-out refusing unpaid overtime and weekends or night let’s your boss know what he can expect of you. On the other hand, occasionally giving in a little shows him you are willing to go the extra mile now and again. It’s a difficult balance but one you’ll have to find for yourself or perish.

The smell of teen spirit

In Japan, it being a country of immaculate cuisine, it is a little surprising how bad a workplace can smell. Like their western counterparts the Japanese developers aren’t particularly poster boys for healthy living. Though most centrally located offices will be surrounded by many restaurants and cafes, which is one of the more impressive aspects of Tokyo in general, lunch is more often than not eaten at the desk and purchased from local convenience store.

I guess one good point about these lunchboxes is that they’re cheap. Most restaurant lunchtime menus cost from 700 to 1000 yen (approx. 6 USD, 5 Euro). This does get you a nice, decent meal but a lunchbox usually costs less than half of that. Imagine a styrofoam base with a clear plastic cover with inside it a bed of rice and any number of side dishes; tonkatsu, fish, pickles, etc. If you work close enough you can have the convenience store clerk bung it in one of their many microwaves or you can simply heat it up at the office; it seems most companies have one as standard equipment.

If you’re really on a budget or hate your body you can also feast on Pot Noodle, what the Japanese erroneously call Cup Noodle, which could cause some confusion. Each office also has a hot water heater, an electric kettle that keeps a large reservoir of water hot for as long as it’s switched on. Now, I say hot, but it usually swings between 90 and 95 degrees centigrade, which is no good for tea.

If you’re terribly unlucky there may also be a fast food outlet nearby; a Mos Burger, First Kitchen or MacDonald’s which is called “MacDonald Hamburger” in Japan and has a vast array of crazy Japanese versions of western meals, equally inedible, as well as your usual selection of cardboard hamburgers and reconstituted potato shapes deep-fried in week old fat.

As you can imagine, apart from the restaurant menus, all of the above is usually consumed with great relish and enormous gusto at the desk of the offending colleague. What this usually means is that by 2 o’clock the office smells like a fishy explosion in a sweat factory, mixed with bovine waste products, a hint of fatty lard globules and, on occasion, strangely, very sour milk. It makes the first part of the afternoon a somewhat nauseating experience. If your colleagues are really into the developer lifestyle they may even come in in the mornings with their little brown paper bag of MacDonald’s containing God knows what kind of breakfast menu selection they feel is appropriate for that time of the day.

Sandwiches though are another matter. Japan does a great job imitating these staples of British food, but somehow falls short. Crusts are cut off, the only bread available is chemical white and the amount of fillings is usually sad to behold. A ham sandwich usually contains one or two slices with maybe a sprinkling of salad. And probably mayonnaise. 90% of sandwiches contain mayonnaise. And the choice of ingredients too is somewhat odd. If you still fancy a sandwich just go to the convenience store and try to buy one. The sad sight of a little plastic triangle with what can only be described as a wedge of lost Hope is enough to put anyone off. And while you’re at it, steer clear of the oden too. That stuff has been broiled in lukewarm water for days.
Luckily there are some excellent bread shops in Japan; if you ignore the strange curry/sausage type affairs, places like Anderson and Paul’s offer some really nice breads, yet no one has yet had the brilliant idea of opening a few tubs of ingredients and creating massive sandwiches on the spot for a 100% mark-up.

There are no pub lunches in Japan. Though izakayas revolve as much around food as they do around drink, they only open in the evenings and no Japanese person drinks alcohol for lunch! If you’re in dire need of some hair of the dog you’re stumped, I’m afraid. It sometimes makes going for a curry for lunch a bittersweet experience.

Japanese food is great, really great and delicious and healthy. Developers, as can be expected, have their own idea of what makes a nutritious meal. As a foreigner in Japan I really recommend going out for lunch; it not only allows you to get away from your screen for a while, but it also saves you from the smells and accompanying nausea and as a bonus means you’ll be eating good, healthy food with a far greater probability. No, going out for a nice lunch set menu at a local restaurant is by far the best deal.

The cast – 5. the senior

I found from personal experience that the distinction between junior and senior level employees is a lot less formalised than in the west. Some companies have the distinction, others don’t. When they do they may have their own terminology, but I found “chief” to be most common. So as a senior artist you’d be a “chief designer”, a senior programmer a “chief programmer” with no special nomenclature for the juniors. Although there is a term for recently hired graduates, fresh from college: “shinnyuushain”, literally “new employee”, which these grads are referred to until they pass their first probationary contract.

But what does it mean to be a senior? Well, pretty much the same as it does back home. You’ll be in a (slightly) higher wage bracket, it means you can be left alone and trusted to get things done without constant supervision, it also means there is a higher chance you’ll be working on the juicier parts of the project, with the more boring tasks delegated to the juniors. You might also be involved in deciding the technical specs for your team’s work as you plan, together with the leads, the best approaches within the technical constraints, or how to best turn the creative director’s guidelines into practical use.

If you have a few years’ experience and a few titles under your belt before you move to Japan, with the higher wage demands you’ll have it will not be unlikely you’ll be hired as a “chief” class employee, mostly so the employer can justify your higher earnings; higher than those of your Japanese colleagues, but still massively lower than your wages back home. If your company has a formalised bonus calculation scheme you may find your percentages go up a little higher too, but again nothing to make you rich.

With the higher wages and increased responsibilities you may also be expected to put in the extra hours when things go awry or take over the burden of some juniors should their work fall behind.
As mentioned previously though, you’ll be earlier in the queue when it comes to deciding who does what and the chances of working on the more interesting parts of the game could fall in your lap, with the juniors having to create the more boring and tedious assets or fixing little problems.
You will also be expected to throw the weight of your knowledge and experience into the ring. Currently I am lucky to work with two other senior artists who both know their shit very well and between us we have set out the technical details and art guidelines the rest of the team are following, with me adding some technical tips and trickery into the mix, complemented beautifully by their input and approaches. Though our remit stops short of laying down the laws for the art team, we form the bridge between the leads and the juniors; the leads demand and approve, the seniors formalise and make it workable, the rest of the team follows.

If you’re hired as a junior artist (or a “regular” artist) it is not impossible to be made a senior during your employment. Don’t expect a massive pay rise to come with that though, as those are still fairly rare in the Japanese industry. It is often best to apply as a senior and get the higher wage that way than to be promoted within a company.

Also there is the possibility of being hired as a senior as a mere formality to justify your wage, but your work will be fairly average and junior-level. If you prove your worth though, that can easily change. Because the titles of junior and senior aren’t as formalised as they are back home you could easily become a senior with the Japanese speaking ability of a junior. To do your work as a senior properly however some more advances skills are necessary as you’ll be ploughing your way through documents and specs and you’ll need to communicate with and help the juniors on the team.

The geek will not inherit the Earth

There are some tenacious misconceptions about Japan that seem to crop up again and again. One of them is the idea that games, manga and anime are staples of Japanese life and that everyone plays, reads, watches them all the time. In a sense, this is truer about Japan than anywhere else, but it’s not quite as clear cut as all that.

The word “otaku” means “geek” and though many westerners have appropriated the word and turned it into something harmless meaning “manga lover” or “serious games enthusiast” in Japan, where the word originated, it still has a derogatory meaning. “Otaku” is what you call those overweight, spotty kids with no life and an unhealthy obsession with dubious manga and DoA hug pillows.
Nothing is more hilarious than witnessing the reaction of Japanese people when some foreigner proudly proclaims himself to be an “otaku”. It is somewhat akin to changing the word “wanker” to mean something like "funny guy” but if you go to the UK and proclaim yourself to be a “wanker”, well, it’s a fairly similar reaction.

Yes, you will see people of all ages read manga on trains, go to certain anime feature films and play the occasional game, but to say it is a fully accepted part of society, well, yes, but within reason. Most anime are aimed at kids. Most games are aimed at kids. A lot of manga is aimed at kids. When you see a grown man read a kids' manga, well, he gets some odd looks. If a guy spends a large portion of his monthly income on games, people will “ummm” and “aahhhh”. If someone watches every anime available on television, people will cross the street to avoid him.
In short, liking manga, games and anime is fine, but being a geek just means you’re a geek; being in Japan doesn’t somehow magically change that.

Otaku are risible characters and are made fun of. Whenever colleagues are browsing gaming websites I teasingly call them “otaku” and they immediately jump into a friendly defensive war of words. I ask my colleagues what cosplay they’ll wear to the game show and they pretend to be shocked and protest, “What kind of person do you think I am?”

Now obviously the foreign geek has the one redeeming feature of being foreign, but that sadly cannot save you from being seen as a geek eventually. It’s easy to pick up girls, being a foreigner, but if you start chatting to them about which anime you like most or how many games you have, well, you’ll end up a lonely single man anyway.
This wasn’t always the case. In a fairly recent fad the novel “Train Man” was briefly popular. Revolving around the romance between a train spotter and a real-life actual woman, this firstly self-published novel became somewhat of a hit, being turned into an actual novel and a television drama. It even made Akihabara, the geek’s ancestral homeland “electric town”, the geek shopping center of Tokyo, into a cool and acceptable place to hang out and, shock horror, the geek was briefly elevated to the rank “desirable”, with young women hanging around hoping to pick themselves up a nice geek boyfriend.
Sadly, though Japanese fashions usually only last a few months and as far as I can tell, the geek has been relegated back to “undesirable” status, where he belongs.

If you’re an insufferable geek and wish to move to Japan, you’ll love it here. There are more toys, manga and anime than you can ever hope to buy and plenty of maid cafes to make you feel like you have a girlfriend, for the right price. But if you a geek escaping from persecution, I'm afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. Though the Japanese obviously won't bully you they still have a special place for their geeks, and that place is at the bottom of the social ladder, despite of what you may have heard.