Fallingu Behindo

I have often stated nobody in Japan speaks English. This is of course not entirely true, but it’s a handy guide for aspiring immigrants. You really need to make the effort to learn Japanese or you’ll face a lot of frustration and hurt your opportunities. But some people do speak English here, some very well, even. Despite learning it as part of the standard curriculum at school most Japanese simply have too little knowledge or skill in English to use it and any proficiency is mainly due to foreign exchange experiences or personal interest. But even in the latter case some people go to English language schools for months and still can’t master the language to a level where it becomes useful. Sure, a lot of people will be able to get the wide gist of a piece of English text if absolutely forced to read it, but ordering a cup of coffee is still too difficult.

Like it or not, and even though it’s not a majority language, English has become, due in no small part to technological advances made in the West and the widespread use of the internet, the lingua franca. Most countries’ populations have dealt with the situation admirably, even though English is a notoriously difficult and confusing language. Watch any news item and most people interviewed, wherever they are in the world, speak English at the very least to an extent it is usable and understandable. Except, of course, when it comes to Japanese interviewees who always need to be dubbed and translated. The same goes for the video game industry. Watch any developer interview on, say, Gametrailers and they’ll speak English, be they from Poland, Russia, Sweden, America (where they speak it very well) or France. But not, of course, Japan.

This is not a rant against Japan’s overall inability to learn a language or my own self-made frustrations as a lifer here, but it struck me that this is most definitely a contributing factor to the further falling behind of Japanese game development especially on technical issues.

One of the great aspects of our industry in recent years is the greater freedom with which developers share information. Shows like GDC, sites like Gamasutra as well as many other outlets are great ways for developers to share information on a mutually beneficial basis. And something like, say, Tim Moss’s excellent lecture on data driven systems, once translated and communicated by me to the rest of the team, turns from a lucid and interesting talk into an incomprehensible, childish load of gibberish. Articles of note on Gamasutra, when sent by email to colleagues, end up ignored in the same way I ignore emails, as it is sometimes just too much bother struggling through a text in a language you haven’t mastered, especially when you’re busy.

Also when it comes to the job market Japan is in trouble. There is a constant lack of qualified applicants and little time or money to train graduates to a good standard. Whereas Westerners are pretty free to move from country to country to find the best companies to work for, Japanese companies, due to their lack of English ability, are limited to local hires and those few foreign idiots who learned the language and are willing to take a massive pay cut. It would seem a lot of able applicants are relocating to America because integration is painless and the salaries much better. Japan is missing the boat here, letting good candidates slip through their fingers. The attitude should be "we want the best, so we look for the best!” rather than “do you speak Japanese and are you willing to work for 50% of the salary you could get elsewhere?”

Though some companies do license foreign technology, like Renderware and Unreal Engine, support, though localized, is usually a step removed from the actual developers of the software. This extra degree of separation can add to response time, affecting the development and ultimately the experience of licensed technology. Even then there are on-line communities where questions can be fielded but fewer in Japan than abroad.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Two of the three major console manufacturers are Japanese and offer pretty good local support. The Japanese market, though shrinking, is at the moment still viable. And with the massive success of the DS and Wii, arguably two pieces of hardware without huge technical power, current working systems in Japan can still be used to profitable effect. Some Japanese developers too have started talking candidly about their technology and practices and there are some local seminars and shows like CEDEC and the like. But when it comes down to numbers these events pale in comparison to foreign shows and with western companies becoming increasingly aggressive in the global market Japan needs to step up and take the challenge, and for this a minimum requirement would seem to be some usable level of English proficiency. It’s not a panacea, but it’s definitely one aspect that is a hindrance to the Japanese game development industry.


  1. "even though English is a notoriously difficult and confusing language"

    I don't think that's the case. Part of the reason why English is so widely used is that it is very easy to learn, compared to French and all its exceptions and 17 tenses, and Japanese where you have to learn a lot of Kanjis.

    But of course, it depends on how close your own language is from the language you want to learn. It's harder for Japanese people to learn English than it is for European people.

    If I'm French and I want to express something in Spanish or in Italian, which are also latin languages, I can take a guess about the structure of the sentence (and even the words in that case!) and I won't be too far, or at least the person will be able to understand the general meaning. But I won't be able to do the same thing in Japanese.

  2. Gamasutra published some time ago a 2-part series about working in Japan as a game developer (no, it is not your feature, which was pretty interesting as well... unless you use another pseudonym!). Here are parts one and two. I studied Japanese for two years between 1997 and 1999, along with school, and I found it to be pretty easy. Besides the kanjis themselves, the grammar structure is pretty simple compared with Spanish. Unfortunately, real life called and had to leave the course before I was prepared for the first level of JLPT.

  3. I remember Sakaguchi complaining about the speed at which Epic could translate their Unreal 3 manuals.

  4. notoriously difficult and confusing language

    My native tounge is German and English is often referred to as a "dialect" of German, at least both language (including Dutch) are similar to think of them as "related".

    English is a very simple language for writing and speaking - if you're not a native English speaker.

    German on the other hand and several eastern European languages are much harder to learn I guess.


    Of course for a Asian it might not matter that much because they have to learn the alphabet and all the concepts of "lettered words" instead of "symbols".