I moved to Japan in 2012 and lived there for six months. I moved back for personal reasons, but I still use my time there as a window into a lot of other things in life.
The bamboo trees across the parking lot were so heavy with snow that their bodies doubled over. I stood at our studio apartment’s window and watched the snow fall. I sipped my Chu-Hi, a fruity Japanese malt beverage, and slipped one hand into the pocket of my sweatpants. My then-girlfriend was still at work teaching english to toddlers, and would be for another few hours. Her commute from the Apita mall in Kamifukuro, Toyama, was a long one. With the two feet of snow it would be even longer. The parking lot’s orange lights cast the snow in a wild spiral. By the morning the cars would be covered up to their mirrors. As I stood, I reminisced about my first day living in Japan.
The first thing that struck me about Japan was how similar it is to America, while simultaneously being so different. In general, culture is fluid, amorphous, and constantly growing. Every culture borrows from its neighbors and inhabitants to help inform its trajectory. An example being America’s long lived infatuation with European, specifically French, culture. Historically, Japan has been a country that exhibits that tendency towards borrowing culture to a great degree. For example, in the Japanese written language the primary lettering set, Kanji, is essentially a modified version of ancient Chinese ideograms.
It’s widely speculated as to why Japan has a history of freely adopting other cultures and making it their own. It’s not really my place to speculate too heavily, but my personal theory is that their history of isolation as an island nation naturally deepened their fascination with external cultures, in the rare circumstances in which they were exposed to the “outside world.” That being said, the fundamental difference between Japan’s sense of cultural appropriation, and any other cultures, is that Japan doesn’t just appropriate, it absorbs and generates.
It’s no surprise to most westerners, particularly gamers, that Japan has a deeply rooted fascination with American culture. For example, Kentucky Fried Chicken became an institution in Japan following the 1970 opening of KFC in Nagoya. Through a bizarre turn of events, it became a Christmas tradition. Aside from the internal marketing angle, perhaps it’s because of the perceived similarity in appearance between Colonel Sanders and Santa, but that hardly matters now. Over time they became synonymous, and the two icons meanings began to blur and merge. KFC became a new cultural artifact that is distinctly separate from its origin. If you asked a Japanese person what “the nature” of KFC is, they would say it’s Japanese, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
My first few hours with Final Fantasy XV reminded me of my first few days living in Japan.
I would finish fighting a grotesque dog-demon-thing with magical weaponry, then retreat to the safety of the local roadside diner. My characters would sit on rotating, vinyl covered stools, their weary elbows resting on the laminate counter top, and relay their day of hunting demons to the down-home shopkeeper over a cup of coffee.
Upon FFXV’s arrival it garnered criticism due to the wide berth between its depiction of ruralist Americana and it’s anime-influenced character design and other fantasy RPG tropes. I won’t disagree that it’s a jarring juxtaposition. Growing up in Kansas City, I’m no stranger to roadside diners. To see something I’m so familiar with be mashed up with something that is foreign, distant, and imaginary, is naturally strange. But there is something really delicious about that. The friction that is generated in the space between those two disparate aesthetics creates a special sensation. It constantly tricks your brain to expect one thing, and receive another. It consistently folds expectations over each other, synthesizing something entirely new. It’s a lot like moving to Japan as a westerner.
That sensation reminds me of Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s flavor of the “Magical Realism” genre. If you’ve never read anything by Murakami, I’d suggest starting with his classic “The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.” In Murakami’s stories, he uses utterly mundane settings, people, and places, and infuses in them an absurd mysticism. Something as ubiquitous as the unused alley between two houses becomes a space that is alien and unsettling. Our protagonist meets a woman, Malta Kano, who dresses quite normally, save for a red vinyl hat. The presence of the hat signals to the reader that something is different about this woman. There is nothing inherently strange about wearing a hat, or a red hat at that, but that it’s vinyl tips the scales in a subtle way, skewing our sense of what should be, and what shouldn’t be.
Our character walks down that same alley many times through the course of the novel. We start to become familiar with that alley and the peculiarity that inhabits it. By the end of a Murakami novel, the plot doesn’t become predictable, but you become comfortable with how he twists our ordinary world. Malta Kano’s hat isn’t just a weird vinyl hat, but it’s Malta Kano’s hat. In Murakami’s “1Q84,” Tengo and Aomame’s worlds cease to be so distant from one another. Chasing a sheep with a black star on its loin starts to seem like the most normal thing a person could do.
When you finish FFXV (god help you in the last third of the game, it’s not great.) you end in a psychological space similar to living in Japan for an extended time. The things that once seemed very far apart are now synonymous. Of course the protagonist can summon a magical spear to his hand, but still needs to pull a smartphone out of his pocket. In a similar fashion it starts to make sense why KFC and Chu-Hi is what’s for Christmas dinner when you live in Japan.