Coronavirus, Japan, a Novel and Game Development


Every time I open up my professional document-creation software, WordPad - I realize just how much crap there is to write about and unpack. Well, ever since I tried avoiding making threads on Twitter beyond 2 Tweets, I think I have more energy for writing. This was supposed to be about a lot of things, but it ended up being about living in Japan during coronavirus, and a novel I read.

The Now

Right now, I'm living in the middle of Tokyo, but I don't really socialize with people IRL that much outside of an occasional friend. This wasn't my expectation when I moved here last August, of course... my plan was to gradually ramp up socialization until I built the confidence to try hanging out with Japanese-speaking friends outside of bilingual group contexts, or maybe go to the local language exchange, but with Coronavirus everything just feels risky. Meeting and talking to new people is one of the best things about life, so to have to go without it for what's coming close to a year now sucks. I mostly socialize online and at home now, but on occasion I'll hang out with a friend outdoors. Online is okay, but it can't fill particular needs that seeing people in person can.

Corona in Japan

Occasionally I see posts on Twitter saying that you can't chalk corona's spread up to personal responsibility alone, and that it's more government/public health policy. Even though I see friends and random people doing arguably 'dumb shit' every day, I do tend to agree with the line of thought that the blame lay in Japan's governance. At no point is 'shutting down the economy' ever considered a solution even though, hilariously, it *worked* back in April. Instead we get half-assed measures like 'closing restaurants at 9 PM', or wasting workers' time sanitizing surfaces, even though corona mostly spreads through poorly ventilated spaces.

To me this feels like an ineffective policy borne from leadership that's unable to accept their "glory days" are over. Look... Japan is a country on the decline: it's never, ever, going to recover back to that point! But, does Japan need to recover? What is 'recovery'? Manufacturing arms for USA's wars?

Despite outdated systems of work and patriarchy in Japan, racist immigration enforcement and general neoliberal economic policy, there's a good healthcare system in Japan, and despite what some angry white dudes on Reddit might say, this is, relatively, a nice country to live in. It's not perfect, but no country is. If you ask me, Japan needs healing, like many other countries that have been harmed by Western modernist ideology of unbounded progress. I don't think Japan can or should 'recover' to whatever it was in the 70s/80s. That's just the delusions of some old Japanese men with political power. There's nothing wrong with not being on top in a broken world system: Japanese citizens and immigrants will still have each other.

One Man's Justice

I was reading "One Man's Justice", a historical novel set in Japan during the USA's terrorist/war crime bombings on Japanese civilians. I highly recommend it if you're into Japanese culture (which you probably are, reading a blog post by me hehe). It's really emotionally heavy, though... so keep that in mind. Anyways, the protagonist Takuya, an ex-lieutenant, who executed an American bomber pilot, is now wanted by his government/the USA for his 'war crime'. The execution is perfectly understandable in the context of the war: the USA did one of its final firebombing raids on civilians, and Takuya worked at the air communication center. When you have an unimaginable level of anger, watching thousands die, and you're losing a war, taking it out on an enemy soldier is not surprising. The novel is not a conservative one - to me, it's clear that its stance on war is that it's a tragedy due to poor leadership, communication and diplomacy on both sides, and people at the bottom stand to suffer the most.

While Takuya's on the run, the novel carries an overwhelming energy of injustice: many USA bomber pilots went crime-free and now were running around Japan doing whatever they want, even acting arrogantly. The story ends as Takuya leaves Sugamo Prison (which... strangely, is now a shopping mall within walking distance of me. I've known about that for a while, but did not realize the novel would feature that setting when I picked it up.). After he leaves prison a few years after the war, Japan is changed. It's as if it's forgotten about war crimes, the war, and Takuya feels as if he's sacrificed everything for, well, nothing. What was the point of putting his life on the line for Japan if it was going to become a chess piece for the USA by the 1950s?

After reading the novel, I can see how the extreme right of Japanese politicans today was borne. Consider how the USA bombed the shit out of civilians and tore apart god-knows-how-many families! And then within months after the war, the USA occupied Japan, started to prosecute war crimes (sometimes justly, sometimes not!), but then stopped prosecuting altogether when the USA needed to make Japan an ally for the Korean War. It's totally senseless.

I don't think it's good to have conservative beliefs, obviously, but it should be fairly obvious how someone could grow up and hold the beliefs of Japan needing to reclaim glory to extinguish embarrassment. What if your dad lost his father to a bombing, and you grew up with that in your household and background? While it would be better to grow and move on from this, that's obviously a change that would be very tough. Again, there's a lot of weird contradictions here. If a politician wants Japan to 'recover' back to the 80s but also reclaim glory, how is that reconcilable if the boom of the 80s was largely due to the USA helping Japan after the war? I think it's a stupid dream, and I know many Japanese citizens and politicians also find it stupid, and so they do actionable things every day to try and move on from that trauma.

Healing and popular culture

For one, in Japan, there needs to be a lot of deep, social healing. From the angle of popular culture - Vtubers, idols, gacha games, moe anime... these are all the same thing in different forms. They "feel" like the future, but really they're just endless replicas of the same tired shit. These things only gain and maintain popularity due to our isolation. They offer good feelings, false connection, often to line some company's pockets... and especially at a time where it's barely safe to hang out with friends, they're a decent, but not sufficient, measure against isolation. To generalize, I think this kind of media is... okay-ish in moderation, not healthy when consumed in excess, but I also recognize that you can't just destroy and take it all away at once. Something only gains 'popularity' because of a collective need for it. Consider Among Us's popularity during corona. In the aforementioned media's case, this stuff's popularity AND origination in Japan indicates a lot of need for healing and community - stuff that can only be fixed by a reorganization of peoples' relation to workplaces, to school, to others.

It feels clear to me that the entire popular media industry in Japan is rotting from the inside. The Demon Slayer anime movie is one of the top-grossing of all time, but it hails from an industry that can't even find visas or fairly pay its best animators. I think some of the most pedigreed AAA Japanese devs see it, too: the directors of Shadow of the Colossus, Danganronpa, Suikoden, Castlevania, Metal Gear, recently Silent Hill, and many more - have left to start their own ventures (probably not as 'indie' as Marina and I, but still, likely less 'safe' than staying in AAA). I was watching Archipel's recent interview with Yoshida, the director of FF14, and in it you can see various subtle stabs at gacha games and large MOBAs like Fortnite. I don't think these developers' visions for games are necessarily in line with mine, but they're definitely not in line with the top corporate AAA studios.

Now let's bring it back to games

It's undeniable that corporate games (corpgames) now tend to lack an energy and soul they, at times, had before the game industry turned to shitty gacha games, black-hole open-world games, monopoly MOBAs, or film-inferiority-complex moviegames like TLoU2. To be sure, there were plenty of bad games and problems then... and honestly, I don't have any 'favorites'. What I tend to like are small fragments, aspects, layers and scraps of old games. But I do think there was a glimmer of an 'amazing future' of games from then, which is why many indies now are reflecting on the past in certain ways. For example, Link's Awakening is kind of eh, but I find the fact that it was an 8-10 person endeavor to be pretty interesting. A funded, 8-10 person team nowadays would probably try to make something that's like a movie or has infinite replayability, not a little, goofy, scrappy, kinda-surreal adventure about a green-hat dork with a sword.

I don't think if I was a kid now, the popular games industry would have captured my imagination as much as it did in the '90s and '00s. There's a reason why teenagers and people in their 20s are rediscovering eerie sides to DS games, Super Mario 64, or exploring PS1 aesthetics, or lesser known indie games on I think it's a collective will to suss out the scrappy, human sides to games, and celebrate or reimagine them.

Nowadays... there seem to be too many 'standards', too many 'conventions' to play to. Popular indie game aesthetics feel like checklists for various good feelings or simple universalizing messages that feel deattached from present day. The 16:9 screen ratio was a mistake. AAA games are trying the impossible task of 'being art' while also 'being able to sell like 3,000,000 copies'. Players get mad when a game has a sad ending (for one, someone got mad at us because of Even the Ocean's ending)

When, exactly, did games move from being a small group of humans' way of expressing thoughts about their world - and mutate into something that's primarily meant to function and be consumed like a drug: to deliver particular feelings and meet certain expectations? I don't like it. Obviously, I consume some games like a drug and I don't think there's NO place for that work - but there's clearly been some shift towards "every game should make me feel good things..."

I want to change the future, I want to see more better media. But I know that only comes from a healthier society. I know I'm only one person and can only affect things through occasional game releases and my daily person-to-person interactions and community uplifting. So... I'll keep doing that. Time to start my workday!