Shackles - part 2

Long time readers with a memory for the banal may remember a post I wrote back in February detailing the tedious process of applying for permanent residency, followed by a promise of a follow-up once the verdict was in.

So last week, on the same day I was able to make the decision to quit my job and having my XBox 360 delivered back home after a third but probably not final repair, I also received the pre-printed and hand-addressed, by myself, postcard telling me my presence was required at the immigration office and if I'd be so kind as to bring my passport, foreigner registration card and money.As they never, ever go into detail specifically, this could only mean I was approved and was asked to come pick up my permanent residency. Either that or I was being deported.

So with my heart in my throat I went to the immigration office and wouldn't you know it, I got my permanent residency! Huzzah! I'd like to think I meet some kind of minimum quality standard as a human being, but I guess it only really means I have paid my bills and taxes and have kept my nose clean, for as far as they've managed to ascertain, as well as reaching the minimum requirements of three years of marriage or work-related equivalents.

One annoying aspect of the permanent residency is that I am still forced to buy "re-entry permits" if I want to leave the country and, well, re-enter; "gaijin tax" they are derisively called by those who need them. An "unlimited" re-entry permit is valid until the end of your visa or a maximum of 3 years, so I will still have to go to the immigration office every three years to buy one. Luckily the process is quick and simple enough; a form, a 6000 Yen stamp and a new sticker in your passport, but annoyance.

A handy tip for any readers wanting to follow suit: find a friendly immigration office. For this application I traveled a little further to a semi-local headquarters rather than my closer-by local branch office. At the latter the people tend to be a miserable bunch of unhelpful oiks, whereas at the former I found staff to be a lot more friendly and helpful. Whether this had any bearing on my application I have no clue, but it might've. When I first attempted to move from a work to a spouse visa we tried this head office where a woman was very helpful, gave us the forms and told us I'd have no problems getting the 3 year spouse visa, really. However, she pointed out, my work visa was still valid for a while so I might as well run that one out first, which I did. When we actually did apply for a spouse visa we went to the local branch office where they eventually gave me a 1 year spouse visa, twice. We then went to the headquarter office and got a 3 year spouse visa. This might have something to do with timing, it might not have, but for this permanent residency we went straight to the headquarters and got it, so it's worth considering asking local expats about their experiences at various offices. Sometimes it's worth the effort traveling a little further.

So here I am, an official "lifer". And with the many, highly appreciated well-wishes from my lovely readers following my last post, I have a feeling that finally, things are coming up Millhouse!

Alea iacta est!

"The die has been cast," Julius Caesar exclaimed, according to Plutarch, before crossing the Rubicon and plunging Rome into a civil war that would shape Western civilisation. And, in a move with exponentially less significance, it is also what I say now, as I have finally decided to lay down arms and hand in my resignation. After a long decade of working in video games development, the majority of which in Japan, I have found that reaching my full potential, the dreams I pursue, to create amazing art through hard work, dedication and study, to work on great games that bring many people joy, to work in a professional, streamlined working environment...are all pretty much impossible here, for a variety of reasons.

Some of these reasons point the finger of blame squarely at myself, of this I have no doubt. I don't for one moment believe I am the "misunderstood genius whom nobody listened to". I certainly could have done more to better my situation, but I gave up. Other reasons, though, are very much to do with the state of video game development in general, especially in Japan. These reasons I will mull over at length in an upcoming series of posts dedicated to the subject. But the end result is: I throw in the towel. I simply cannot ever do any good (enough) work as a wage slave in a Japanese company. I'm out.

To say I feel liberated is possibly somewhat of an understatement. In fact, this decision was made a while back but due to circumstances out of my hands I had to bide my time. One can imagine having this particular carrot dangled in front of me for months on end was a very rough and emotionally turbulent trek.

So what's next for me? Sadly, unlike the West, in Japan one usually works out their notice period to the last second. Having already had my reserves of motivation depleted it'll be a difficult last month, dragging myself to work. But after that, I've been looking into the possibility of doing some freelance work, indie projects, some other business ideas, doing some art for art's sake. I need to realign my spine and coax some life back into my joints by exercising, possibly swimming in one of the tiny local pools usually clogged by ancient women doing aquarobics. Learn to knit. Study something, possibly another language. Work through my backlog of unplayed games. Do a bit of traveling to see friends and family. But mostly, and foremost, I will have a sleep for a month orso.

Japanmanship will continue for as long as I have things to write about and spurious opinions to proclaim. Aside from the series of in-depth post-mortems I have planned I'll now be able to look a little more closer at typical Japanese games that usually don't make it to the West, as well as the many trial and tribulations of the freelancer or indie developer. Theoretically, aside from the post-mortems, the tone of the blog should take a turn for the optimistic, or, if things don't go well, the self-loathing, as I'll have noone to blame but myself.

Japanese devs aren't stupid

However frustrated I get sometimes it is good to know there are Japanese developers, of actual importance and status, who seemingly pretty much agree with me. It's a little confirmation that makes me glow on the inside and reminds me that, even though my tone may be condescending and bitter at times, I am not pulling all this out of my arse.

In an interview in Gamasutra, Platinum Games' Atsushi Inaba speaks frankly of the wide chasm between Western and Japanese games. What lends these comments particular weight, in my eyes, is that I personally consider Platinum Games' output to be of extraordinary quality, painting them as one of the top developers in Japan. Yet even Mr. Inaba concedes Japan is behind.

"And what I want Japanese creators to realize now is that they are now following the lead of the U.S. creators, and that we need to get to and then surpass those creators, with innovative games that sell in the West as well."

He points to one particular strength of Japanese developers, namely working well within tight technical limitations.

"Japan had always been good at taking advantage of what was available within the technology of the consoles that were available then, and worked best within the restrictions, while the West had always been great at going beyond what was available to them. So, going forward, I believe that Japan needs to be more creative, and go beyond what is given. "

It is true, from my observations, that Japanese developers generally don't cope well with the raw power and the expectations that come with that of the next generation systems, which, in conjunction with the huge sales figures, might explain why so many of them are looking at the Wii and the DS as primary platforms. Arguably, Japanese developers are doing amazing things on the DS, for example, pushing its limits both technically and creatively; this is one area where one could argue Japan is ahead of the West. The Wii, however, remains a Nintendo powerhouse, with plenty of cheap, substandard shovelware littering the shelves in Japanese stores too.

One thing Japan is still pretty strong in is, in my opinion, creative design. This is a country and market, though also blighted by sequels and cynical cash-ins, where one can still follow the, what I call, William S. Burroughs school of game design pitching. One can dream up a high-concept pitch, say "you play a mechanical fetishist penguin from the future who needs to save the world by slapping people's arses with a sword made out of handbags while avoiding FBI agents dressed as lolitas who want to use your brain to create a funky coat for the president's daughter, who is also a pink SUV", which would, in the West, get you escorted off the premises by security but, in Japan, might lead to nodding and chin stroking. When Mr. Inaba speaks of being more creative, I'm sure he means technically.

Just the fact that companies like Capcom and Platinum Games have come this this realisation and are working to remedy it is very comforting. Game Republic's Yoshiki Okamoto agrees but is a little more defeatist about it, thinking that the West is now so far ahead that it's almost impossible to catch up.

"Even if we thought about catching up with them now, they'd still be making progress."

He might be right, but it's not a lost cause. Things need to change and it seems they might. But as all things in Japan, the change will be slow and will require input from the outside. Readers of this blog may be interested to hear that Platinum Games are willing importers. theoretically at least, as Mr. Inaba mentions:

"Bayonetta is a very difficult game to develop, and if there are very capable developers and programmers in the West it would be great if they could come on board."

If haven't a clue how far they are prepared to go with this, as it'd require some extensive company-wide language training, relocation support and possibly a restructuring of development systems and salary structures, but eager readers know where to send their resumes. It should also be noted that Game Republic appear to also be gaijin-friendly. Don't focus too much on my fatalist bitter ramblings, but take some solace in the fact Japanese developers too are looking to fix things.

Strength in numbers

I had an interesting conversation with a friend and fellow foreign lifer here who pointed out the obvious I was already vaguely aware of but had not quite yet formulated into a thought: the more gaijin work at your office, the better. And this isn't coming from some kind of racist superiority complex, no.

There is a kind of foreigner in Japan who suffers from the commonly called "my Japan syndrome", for whom the mere sight of another foreigner breaks the illusion that the solitary life here can easily trick someone into: that you're somehow special and unique. And certainly, the fact Japan is so homogeneous and every white, long-nosed face sticks out in a crowd, you'll find interest, idolisation even, from many Japanese people who don't often come into contact with "your sort". If your dream of working in the Japanese game development industry is based on a love for very Japanese-y games, you may even think you'll want to work in a very Japanese company surrounded, exclusively if possible, by Japanese colleagues. There is no better way to immerse yourself, is there not?

Well, it's not all piss and cakes. The Japanese system has its faults and problems, as does any, but I daresay we labour under some more egregious managerial fallacies that have either already been decimated in the West or have generally been decided as being a very bad idea. Not so Japan, where the old adage "but this is Japan!" is still the most commonly used excuse to not have to think about any troubling situations. I have had long and frustrating conversations with colleagues, usually over a cigarette or two, about their work ethics. "If you are so tired," I'd ask, "why not go home on time and take a good rest? That way you'll be more focused tomorrow!" And they'd nod and agree. And then they'd just go ahead and do what they always do: stay late because this is Japan. Whenever I come across interesting articles on technical issues, game design or tools I make a point of sending it in an email to interested parties, or rather to parties who should be interested, though they never make an effort to read them. When I am given neither autonomy nor direction over my work I pipe up and say it's a waste of everybody's time for me to create something and then change it later when they have ironed out all the issues. I try to lead by example, working solid hours, always coming in on time and trying to remain focused during the day. I try to inform colleagues of new games and the interesting things we could learn from them. I try to push for best practice approaches to problems. However....

I am the only foreigner in our part of the studio. Therefore, I am also the only one trying to bring about change, for the better, hopefully. I am the only one who comes in on time every morning, who leaves on time too. I am the only one who avoids unpaid overtime. I am the only one calling other disciplines to task when they make mistakes that directly impact my work flow. I am the only one who really tries to research games and techniques. I am, in short, the only one who wants change.

Now the main problem with this is that I don't, nor am able to, offer any real context to my proposals and ideas. I am just one man, and as such, in a communal country like Japan, can all too easily be dismissed. "This is Japan," they say "and we do things our way. You are just some weird foreigner." And well, I am, I guess. "JC comes in very early every morning," they think, "because he is just this weird foreigner who sticks to his contracted hours." or "Don't ask JC to come in on weekends, because he's weird and will say 'no'." However, had there been three or four or more of us, all doing these things, it wouldn't be represented as one man's insanity but as "the way things foreigners do it". If every morning, when people finally come in, there is a group of foreigners already hard at work, they will think, "wow, foreigners do it this way, huh?" rather than "ah, there's good old mad JC." A single person is a problem, a group of people is a movement.

The message of this post is twofold. Firstly, if you are keen to work in Japan you may be thinking you want to work in a Japanese company with a Japanese working environment. As a Westerner this is not a good environment to work in. I will go into more detail in the future but the Japanese system is inefficient and broken; one can witness this in the companies that are successful, which also appear to be the ones actively changing their approaches. Secondly, a single person cannot affect change, especially in Japan. For these reasons I highly recommend future ex-pats to investigate, even ask during interviews, how many foreigners are working at a studio before making any commitments. The more foreigners there are, the more chance there is that there isn't too Japanese a working mentality, that the studio has a future and that you won't end up too frustrated and overworked or that there is a real possibility of change for the better. By painting this as a Western vs. Japanese attitudes thing might come across as racist, foreign arrogance even, but from my experiences and observations it seems to be the case. Japanese developers too are slowly beginning to realise they dropped the ball, in development terms, quite a while ago, and some companies are actively making changes to emulate the more useful Western approaches to stay competitive. Having foreigners on board helps with that and it will help you, as a foreigner working at a Japanese company.

As for me, well, I have long given up trying to change things. As the solitary white guy here I am simply unable to. I can have frank discussions with my boss over a few drinks, where he vehemently agrees with me, even spurs me on, I can talk to exhausted colleagues who will agree that they are working so hard as to have become inefficient, I can try to lead by example, but in the end "this is Japan" and I am just the single odd one out. I am that single nail that sticks out. So I spend my days just doing exactly what I am asked to do and nothing more, while pondering the future I might have at this studio. Or not, as the case might probably be.