I had one hell of a weekend. After I published my piece on Final Fantasy producer Naoki Yoshida’s misguided comments about the next game’s overwhelming whiteness, the fans completely lost their minds. Sure, I saw the usual slurs and petty insults. But those weren’t the comments that stuck to my brain. What bothered me were the (seemingly) well-meaning people who told me that Japanese creators couldn’t possibly understand racial differences. Or that we shouldn’t expect East Asian developers to be empathetic about representation for Black and brown people. I rolled my eyes so hard, I ended up writing a blog about it.
When I write about wanting Japanese games to be less socially embarrassing, there’s almost always a backlash. People accuse me of projecting western ideas onto an Asian country. But Japanese pop culture has already been engaging with themes of real-life racism. One of the main characters in the manga Bleach (2001) is a Mexican-Japanese boy who was bullied for being “different.” The protagonist of the action-RPG Yakuza 3 (2009) realises that one of his foster children is racist towards another kid for being half-Black, and he teaches her not to judge people on the basis of skin colour. Race is an important theme to any artist who wants to represent the full range of human experiences, regardless of whether they’re American or Japanese.
And even the developers of FFXVI are extremely sensitive to racial and cultural differences outside of Japan. For example, the developers have deliberately chosen to only use European voice actors for their English dub. They’ve also opted to have those actors use very posh British accents, which only a very small percentage of the British population actually have. A massive publisher like Square Enix is fully capable of utilising non-Japanese talent to improve cultural accuracy. It has simply chosen not to dedicate resources to making some of their characters a race other than “white European.” So I am once again asking weird nerds not to pretend that Square Enix is some indie developer in a guy’s basement. It is a multinational corporation that wants to sell copies of the game to a gaming audience that includes Black and brown people.
And I wasn’t simply criticising some newcomer to Japanese game development. Naoki Yoshida is the lead creative producer on one of the most globally famous video game franchises of all time. It’s his job to keep up with popular media and culture trends. Racial diversity is definitely one of them. Hollywood is slowly finding out that more equitable casting leads to better box office performance. (The New York Times says that Hollywood loses $US10 ($14) billion a year by dragging their feet on diversity.) If we’re trying to measure the artistic achievement of a prestige game, then inclusivity should be evaluated as seriously as we might consider “technical” elements such as the graphics, cinematography, or the responsiveness of the controls. It’s insulting to hold blockbuster Asian games to a completely different standard. Moreover, it feels incredibly awkward to be told that Asian creators can’t develop media literacy about racism. Yoshida himself said in a Fanbyte interview that he experienced racism in America and Europe, which is more than I can say about the white creative leads who helm projects featuring non-white characters.
The backlash to demands for inclusivity is interesting when it comes from JRPG fans. I read a strong tone of defensiveness — that JRPGs are just fine as they are, and they don’t need to be held to western standards. As someone who grew up playing them, I get where the feeling comes from. Just a decade ago, a Canadian indie developer felt emboldened enough to publicly tell a Japanese developer at a conference “[Japanese games] just suck.” The crowd laughed. “I’m sorry, you guys just need to get with the times.” The developer whom the comment was aimed at had been a programmer for Final Fantasy XIII. A month later, Kotaku published a blog that defended JRPGs from oft-repeated claims that the genre was too “stale” or “archaic.”
In the face of unfair criticism towards JRPGs, it can be tempting to reflexively defend the genre. I’ve certainly been guilty of it in the past. But it’s not necessary anymore. Genshin Impact is the most widely-played open-world game globally. Square Enix is publishing both new JRPGs and remakes of older titles for the western market. 77 per cent of Persona 5 sales were from overseas. As JRPGs achieve record-breaking sales numbers, the instinct to defend these games feels even more dated to me. Genshin Impact will survive the criticisms of how it represents Southwest Asian people. FFXVI will sell millions of copies no matter how bad the representation is on launch.
But I don’t actually think the arguments that we simply can’t expect Japanese devs to understand race and racism are necessarily made in good faith. The excuse of “Japan is simply different” seems to extend to all other forms of oppression, too. Whenever someone criticises how women or queer people are represented in Japanese media (hello, Persona fandom), I see some aggressive rebuttal about how Japan doesn’t understand feminism or LGBTQ rights. If the vibes are off, I check the profile only to find that the commenter is American. How predictable.
Here’s why: White conservatives are terrified that they’re losing hold on popular media. They’re looking for their own utopia — a place that excludes women and minorities. For some white people, Japan is seen as an eternally unchanging, conformist, and traditional society where marginalised people know their place. Obviously, countries don’t work like that. But gamer chuds want Japan to be a safe space from all that SJW nonsense. Regardless of what’s good for JRPGs as a genre or what actually makes good business sense.
I’m excited that East Asian games can finally attain western recognition for artistry and innovation. But I also want American audiences to be able to seriously reckon with their weaknesses too. Will Japanese creative leads make mistakes with racial inclusion? Absolutely. That’s part of being any director, irrespective of nationality. But they should be expected to make the attempt. Expecting these games to have good representation isn’t ignorant — it’s a sign that we’re finally taking Japanese games seriously.