The ‘JRPG’ label has always been othering

In February, Final Fantasy 16 producer Naoki Yoshida sat down in an interview with YouTuber SkillUp as part of a tour to promote the next installment in the Final Fantasy series. During the interview, Yoshida expressed his distaste for a term that had effectively become its own subgenre of video game, though not by choice. “For us as Japanese developers, the first time we heard it, it was like a discriminatory term, as though we were being made fun of for creating these games, and so for some developers, the term can be something that will maybe trigger bad feelings because of what it was in the past,” he said. He stated that the first time both he and his contemporaries heard the term, they felt as though it was discriminatory, and that there was a long period of time when it was being used negatively against Japanese-developed games. That term? “JRPG.”

JRPG is short for “Japanese role-playing game.” Though the term simply refers to RPGs made by Japanese developers, it has also become a label prone to stereotyping. Over the years such stereotypes have led to both discriminatory media coverage and conversation around such games. And as a kind of “Japanese aesthetic” has become popularized, especially in recent years — as Japanese cultural exports have become sought after overseas — studios have attempted to recreate the look and feel of such titles, with a tokenizing preference for specific eras of Japanese history. This aesthetic has become commoditized and repackaged — but it is ultimately still “othering.”

How the term “JRPG” came into existence is less than clear. Though RPGs had been developed in Japan since the 1980s, the term “JPRG” seems to first appear as early as 1992, as seen in an archived conversation on an internet forum now preserved in a Google Groups chat. Reddit users found that the term became popularized due to the sudden influx of Western PC RPGs that began appearing on consoles as a way to loosely categorize that style of game. Japanese games were mostly referred to as “console RPGs’’ at the time by games media. This was largely due to the games exclusively being released on consoles as opposed to PCs, separating the market, with developers like Nintendo and Sony dominating the console scene at the time. The late ’90s and early ’00s were also largely when Western-made RPGs began to appear on the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and Xbox consoles. And around this time is when general vitriol for Japanese RPGs, along with any Japanese-made game, began to appear. As early as the ’90s some publications, such as the official U.K. PlayStation Magazine, tried to combat early stereotype-driven perceptions of Japanese developers as foreign workaholics who lived in a buzzing metropolis, unfortunately to little effect.

Image: Monolith Soft/Nintendo

Japanese RPGs were effectively shuttled into their own category, no longer just an RPG by conventional definitions. This was, allegedly, done for more categorical purposes, but still contributed to the subsequent “othering” of Japanese games within the vast umbrella of what constituted an RPG — a broad category that includes action-RPGs and strategy RPGs such as the seminal Final Fantasy and deeply influential Chrono Trigger, among others. What these games have in common is the inclusion of some kind of role-playing aspect — like building characters’ skills, abilities, and/or personalities over time, usually through the game’s leveling system or narrative structure.

Come 2005, with the release of the Xbox 360, the market had all but shifted away from RPGs in general, despite Microsoft’s attempt to court Japanese player bases within Japan with Mistwalker’s Lost Odyssey. First-person shooters captured an entirely new audience as franchises like Call of Duty effectively began their reign over the gaming industry at large. While interest in Japanese-made RPGs began to decline, Resident Evil series creator Shinji Mikami shared his thoughts on the subject with U.K. games magazine CVG in 2010, revealing that he believed “JRPGs were never that popular in the West to begin with” and that the genre was “never really that popular from the start.”

Mikami may have had a point, as Final Fantasy was the only massively Japanese-made successful franchise outside of the Japanese market. But attitudes toward Japanese video games were also taking a more noticeable shift in North America, with Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii actually inquiring in a 2010 interview with IGN as to why “U.S. reviewers” were noticeably more negative toward turn-based RPGs at the time. And television network G4 only added to the already growing general negative sentiment.

This year, a G4 review from 2006 about Baten Kaitos Origins, an RPG developed by Japanese studios tri-Crescendo (the Star Ocean series) and Monolith Soft (Xenoblade Chronicles), resurfaced in the wake of the discussion of the term JRPG on Twitter. While footage of the overall review was condensed, it featured fear-mongering and jokes about replacement theory (a baseless conspiracy theory stating that white people are being “replaced” by immigrants of color). In the footage, co-host Morgan Webb said, “While Japanese people may be technologically advanced and financially powerful, they’re already in decline.” The network’s review of Final Fantasy 12, while giving it a perfect score, featured the hallmark racism and homophobia that was in line with how most major North American publications talked about the series post-Final Fantasy 10. These offensive reviews particularly fixated on the idea that the series had “annoyingly girlish” protagonists in characters like Tidus or Vaan.

Donal Duck, Sora, and Goofy stand together, underneath a pinkish and purple sky. They are looking up and to the left.

Image: Square Enix

This sentiment was also shared in physical issues of Game Informer. In editor-run columns in the magazine, now-iconic Japanese protagonists like Cloud Strife, or even Sora from Kingdom Hearts, were torn down in deeply homophobic ways, with a focus on their more androgynous looks compared to the brusque Marcus Fenix from Gears of War. At the time, Japanese protagonists were viewed as “girlish” or “feminine,” and these designs were notably emasculated by the press in a similar way that both Chinese and Japanese men were emasculated in America in the 1800s and 1900s, respectively. This stereotyping was also not exclusive to Japanese RPGs, but found its way into the general perception of Japanese video games and their subsequent development.

In order to chase the success of Western-made video games, Japanese developer Capcom famously outsourced the development of some of its more successful franchises to Western studios in the mid-to-late 2010s. The 2013 Devil May Cry series “reboot,” DmC: Devil May Cry, was perhaps one of the more notable examples of a Japanese studio attempting to reinvent an IP in order to chase a new audience by handing over it to U.K. developer Ninja Theory.

The now-infamous GDC presentation in which the Ninja Theory team members shared images attempting to convey who their rebooted version of protagonist Dante from the Devil May Cry series “was” or “wasn’t,” is a crystallization of how some Western developers viewed Japanese games within the industry at that period of time. The presentation itself was composed of comparisons: The original series was akin to Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, showcasing the heroes in their famous (or infamous) latex suits, whereas their version was more in line with Max Landis’ Chronicle.

A majority of these images perpetuated racist and homophobic stereotypes. These “was” or “wasn’t” comparisons, in relation to this reimagining of Dante’s character, pitted popular Japanese rock group X Japan against the likes of the Sex Pistols, and in a following slide an image of Japanese teens in visual-kei-inspired outfits (a kind of music movement at the time that featured androgynous fashion elements) were compared to a white teenager from the United Kingdom. The specific use of these wildly different visuals showcased an inherent othering of Japan and Japanese people as viewed solely through its pop culture and fashion trends at the time. The presentation also opened with an image of Dante in Brokeback Mountain, which the speaker presented as a punchline.

And only within the past five or so years have attitudes concerning Japanese games fundamentally shifted back into the positive. Ahead of the release of Monster Hunter Rise, director Yasunori Ichinose revealed that the development team had been concerned about the game’s “Japanese/Asian-flavored setting,” but was pleasantly surprised at its generally positive reception. In an interview with The Verge, Monster Hunter producer Ryozo Tsujimoto said he felt that certain aspects of Monster Hunter: World would appeal to a Western audience, but that these changes hadn’t been made specifically for that audience’s sake. Monster Hunter: World has gone on to sell 18.8 million copies worldwide, making it Capcom’s best-selling title of all time. The next installment, Monster Hunter Rise, has since sold 12.7 million copies. And Sega has gone on to release the previously Japan-exclusive Like a Dragon: Ishin! (or Ryu ga Gotoku: Ishin!) in both North America and Europe due to the success of Western-developed title Ghost of Tsushima.

Two samurai clash blades in Like a Dragon: Ishin!

Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon

Japanese RPGs have also seen an uptick in interest and sales. Square Enix saw the highly anticipated Final Fantasy 7 Remake contribute to growth in the company in 2020 due to high international sales of the title. And even less “mainstream” Japanese role-playing games like Xenoblade Chronicles 3 saw sales surpass 1.81 million copies worldwide, making it the fastest-selling entry in the series to date.

But this also warrants interrogation of the general acceptance of Japanese aesthetics or specific narratives from Western audiences, especially after the previous decade of general vitriol toward Japanese-developed games. While games developed by Western studios may not have spearheaded the popularization of Japanese aesthetics overseas — Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and Sega’s Yakuza 0 gained significant popularity in North America and Europe after receiving praise from mainstream outlets and press — it did help ease consumers into the idea that these specific aesthetics were “cool.”

No doubt, Cool Japan (the Japanese government campaign aimed at making its cultural exports seem “cool” overseas) also has some play in this, as Western developers pulled from decades’ worth of Japanese media to create games inspired by Japanese cinema, video games, or pop culture. Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima, which was in part inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s films, is a prime example of this. And since its release, Ubisoft has gone forward with plans to release an Assassin’s Creed game set in Japan (though it has been rumored to be in development for a significant number of years).

It’s clear that the mainstream only courts a specific idea of Japan as being acceptable — often reinterpretations of feudal Japan, largely spanning from the 1500s to late 1800s, when the samurai were still part of Japanese society. This extends to what Japanese-made games Western publishers will support; Electronic Arts, for instance, has collaborated with Japanese developer Omega Force to publish, under its EA Originals label, the action-RPG Wild Hearts, which also samples from that same general time period AAA Western developers have honed in on.

Of course, there is some deviation from this in terms of what general aesthetics have gone on to appeal to Western audiences. While consumers might be less enticed by the Persona series — due to its more recent entries focusing on the Japanese high school experience — many Japanese game aficionados gravitated toward it, perhaps for a different (although similar) virtual tourism experience to a series like Yakuza. And there are also independent developers that have created clear homages to Japanese-developed RPGs with games such as Chained Echoes, but while that title pays homage to games like The Legend of Dragoon, Chrono Trigger, and the Legend of Mana series, it remains distinct and wholly its own.

While the “Japanese” aesthetic has come back en vogue — and JRPGs have become a favored genre — it can just as easily fall out of favor among Western audiences once again. Even as the term itself remains contentious, being both used as a negative and positive descriptor even among Japanese developers, we are once again watching the cycle continue. It is still a term that “others” Japanese RPGS — whether the term is a source of discrimination, or signals an aesthetic to be fetishized. As non-Japanese audiences remain newly enamored by franchises like the distinctly Japanese Yakuza series, and in historical action games like Nioh and its subsequent sequel, or even the heightened interest in the Final Fantasy series with Final Fantasy 16 looming on the horizon, it’s interesting to see how long this will last.

It is ultimately indicative of the acceptance of certain styles of Japanese narratives and aesthetics, specifically ones that support an already affirmed worldview of the country or its pop culture. And this diminishes the rich tapestry of games released under the “Japanese role-playing game” umbrella in order to fulfill a fantasy for non-Japanese consumers.