Trials of the global consumer

Though the whole process is somewhat annoying I do understand the thinking behind region-locking. Film and game industries want or need to control the separate markets as each region has its own laws and languages. Luckily it has never been a real issue for me; the DS, which has turned out to be my main gaming platform, is thankfully region-free and even though the rather pricey Japanese DVDs offer foreign films in their original languages, albeit with a Japanese front-end, my dirt cheap, mail-order Chinese DVD player has worked well playing my global collection of DVDs. Until recently, that is, when it gave up the ghost and refused to read any more discs.

It quickly became clear that asking straight out if the players on the shelves in reputable stores were region-free would guarantee a negative response. All shopkeepers were delightfully apologetic but insisted that only Japanese region players were available, as by law I presume. One glanced at me sideways and mentioned I might try Akihabara, but he said it in a “but course I wouldn’t know about that kind of thing” tone of voice. The informative and helpful foreigner community gave me some insights and directions to several shops, indeed in Akihabara, but also mentioned that even here “region-free” is only talked about in hushed tones and never advertised. There was nothing for it, I would have to make the long and arduous journey to Electric Town, a place that with its crowds, noise and maids handing out maid café leaflets somewhat gives me the pip, aggravated by my traditional weekly headache.

Though big stores like Laox have foreign goods sections they weren’t particularly region-free. In stead they offered players for separate regions other than Japan, which wasn’t going to be helpful. Several coffees later and I was having no luck. Even in the backstreet shops asking straight out if players were region-free was guaranteed a nervous but ultimately negative response. Subterfuge was in order.

One hint I was given was to pretend I’d be moving back to the UK soon which would, in a roundabout way, lead me to the region-free players. I took a deep breath and entered one of the many Duty Free shops. There on a shelf were a few DVD/HDD players, one of which caught my eye. The helpful Indian shopkeeper, respectably suited, hovered nearby. “Forget you know Japanese. You’re a noob here.” I told myself, getting in the mood. I approach the man in English and he sprung to my aid.

“Um, these players. I, um, will probably be moving back to England in a year orso, um, will they, will this one, um…”
“Yes, sir,” he replied, and proceeded to fill me in on the details.
“How long will you be staying in Japan?”
“Um, about a year orso.”
He obviously wants to know if Duty Free is in order.
“It probably won’t be duty free for me” I say.
Damn, too keen. He seems unsure.
“How long have you been in Japan?”
“Um, about a year orso.”
Damn, I gave that same answer before, about when I’d be going back. I start to sweat; I really should have fleshed out my character. I should have written a hinterland, a history. I could have been Peter Gynt, 35, an English financial advisor, married with two young daughters. I’m just in Japan for a short-term contract but may stay longer, but only an extra year or two or three. I could have joked about this. But no, I’m winging it, badly.
The shopkeeper seems unfazed. He probably realizes anyway, or am I being to paranoid? Maybe he can see me sweating.
He starts to explain about PAL and NTSC and leads and antenna cables. I nod.
“What kind of television do you have?”
“Oh, um, a Sony Wega, quite an old one.”
Dammit, an old one! Why did I say that? I just said Id been in Japan for a year orso. My badly researched lie is falling apart.
He goes to check if they have this model in stock. I take a few deep breaths. I had no idea I was such a bad liar. Yes, they have it in stock but it needs to be brought over from another shop, so please hang around a bit.
“Okay, sure, thanks.” Damn, more time to cover.
The guy’s Japanese boss joins us at the register and starts to talk Japanese to him. I have to remind myself I cannot speak Japanese here, nor understand it.
“What country is he from?” he asks.
I start to look up but remember not to. I stare around me like a clueless tourist.
“Oh, did you talk to him about the plug?”
I want to say I have a bag of plug conversions at home already but bite my lip.
The shopkeeper starts into his plug conversion speech but I try to cut him off as soon as I can. I want to get out of here. Where is that damn player.

15 minutes and a whole lot of sweaty embarrassment later I walk out with a region-free DVD/HDD recorder. The hoops one must jump through to enjoy one’s own, legally purchased, DVD collection. I feel bad about badly lying to the shopkeeper as he was incredibly helpful. It’s all part of life’s rich pageant, I suppose.

I do understand the thinking behind region locking but I certainly don’t like it. It all seems such a waste in Japan. I suppose it’s easier to understand in Europe where people want to have early access to American films and games, as Europe always seems to be one of the last to enjoy these things. But in Japan? I have had conversations with colleagues about importing and pretty much noone bothers. DVDs, they say, must have subtitles or they won’t understand too much of them. Games are as unplayable to them in English as they are to us in Japanese, i.e. it’s do-able but such a pain that we usually don’t bother. I for one play the games I really want to sit down and enjoy in English; having to translate makes it hard work which is sort of against the whole idea of playing games in the first place.

I suspect one could open the entire Japanese market, erase region-locking in players and game consoles and it wouldn’t affect the markets in the slightest. It would, however, make life as an international consumer and immigrant a whole lot easier. But then we are a minority, so why would anyone care? All I really need to do is write myself a convincing alter-ego to use in these kinds of situations in the future. Maybe an international relations advisor and consultant, Hugo Victor, 37, from Woking, divorced with one young son and huge monthly alimony payments. I’m in Japan for a short-term contract for research and may or may not get a two year extension, depending on my ability to buy a region-free DVD player.


  1. Even your the story you made up afterwards was weird. Your said you had an old TV - doesn't that make more sense? You are only going to be there for a couple of years, so why splash out on some 60inch high def monster when some old second hand model will do? You are after a player (CHEAP AS CHIPS) that you can take home to England because you are going to be so damn broke that you won't be able to afford or even think about buying a UK one when you return home. You should have just pretended you teach English and wanted to be able to watch Japanese porn whilst still in Japan and return home with your porn collection and DVD player and be able to watch English porn when you get home.

    Bah, who am I to suggest a better story - I can't even keep quiet when a shopkeeper gives me too much change. The one time I did manage, it turned out that I was actually the one that had lost money when I double checked the contents of my wallet later that day.

  2. To anonymous above: I know until recently selling used games was illegal, also strict regulations make it almost impossible to keep a car around for very long--making the used auto market nearly non-existent etc. This might bleed over into other consumer goods. Used Tvs might actually be hard to come by.

    Anyhow, the economics terms for 'region locking' or similar methods is Third Degree Price Discrimination. By prohibiting trade in between unbalanced markets they can charge different amounts per territory. Just think about how Europeans are gouged on games, or think about how dirt cheap even legitimate DVD's and Games are in China. Free trade in between markets would be disastrous. Firms maximize profits by keeping these markets separated.

  3. I, for one, can't wait until legit downloads become par for the course. Of course there will be some IP blocking involved but eventually that is where the truly open, global market lies.

  4. One of the things I missed when I came to Japan was my region-free player that I had foolishly sold back in America. I brought quite a collection of American DVDs with me, and was forced to watch them on my laptop or hook my laptop up to my TV.

    I bought a region-unlocked PS2, only to find that it didn't play PAL dvds (the best special edition of Usual Suspects is UK-only), so it wasn't particularly region-free. And then I bought an HDTV, and that crappy laptop resolution just wasn't going to cut it anymore.

    I went to the local Yamakishi superstore, took note of the 5 cheapest DVD players, went back home and checked online for region-unlocking information. Three of the DVD players were unlockable. THREE of the FIVE. I got the impression that most foreign-made DVD players were unlockable. Drove back to Yamakishi, picked up the 2nd cheapest (7,000yen) because it also played DIVX/XVID (Avox players are nice, and cheap), took it home and unlocked it. The entire process from start to finish, including both trips to the store and searching on the internet, took maybe an hour and a half.

    Of course, if I spoke any Japanese at all, I might have tried to go your route and asked the clerks. ^_^

  5. I totally agree about your comment about buying games in Japan. I got hold of a Wii here recently and was utterly pissed off to find that even the OSD doesnt support English.

    I hoped it would be like the 360, region locked, but runnable in English.

    So many times I've tried playing Japanese versions of games, only to give up and get an import copy.

    By the way - the 360 plays PAL Region-2 DVD's very nicely.

  6. eh? It would be beter to say your American. As the UK and Japan share the same DVD region code (2).