Love Plus Imagination – Part 3: Why Visual Novels (and Manga Comics) are More Popular in Japan

“Only a Japanese person would like that…” An ignorant and perhaps subtly racist statement, sure. However, for a different reason, there’s some truth to it when it comes to manga (Japanese comics) or visual novels (a video game genre that entails slow-paced story-telling, lots of reading, and pop-up options that can completely change the course of the game). To be clear, the statement is not true because Japanese people are inherently more inclined to like visual novels; but rather, they are more likely to give such games a chance and overlook issues that most English-speakers/Westerners would not tolerate as easily, because of their culture. The information below will reveal what the English-speaking world is ignorant of in several specific aspects of Japanese popular culture.

Explanations, Anyone?

One down

The gaming website 1up wrote an interesting article on visual novels, but it included some points that I don’t agree with, such as the following excerpt:

Why would Japan ever go game-crazy over something that isn’t much of a game? Perhaps the answer’s in the question: with videogames so deeply entrenched in Japanese culture by the end of the ’80s, consumers would check out anything that was on a game console.

The excerpt above so worthlessly circular that it makes no sense when you think about what it implies. “Consumers would check out anything that was on a game console?” If that were true, there would be no failures in the industry, and Japan would know all of the multitudes of companies who produced video games. But some games failed, some didn’t. Some were popular, some weren’t; and most you probably haven’t heard of, because they were failures.

Unless 1up is implying that there were so few consumers at the time that such consumption wouldn’t be a big deal for the industry, consumers wanting to “check out anything that was on a game console” should have led game developers to all have been rich from all this consumer spending, also yielding a high demand for more visual novels. This didn’t happen.

1up gets away with this obviously speculative statement by using the words “check out” instead of “buy.” But let’s be clear – at that time in the ’80s, you couldn’t rent games in the West. And in Japan, there are still no video game rental stores – so “check out” really did mean “buy” – or else borrow from someone who bought it. You can rent tablets like the iPad, but not video game software. In short, this explanation tells us nothing.

So that’s one explanation down.

Just Not Getting It

It’s excerpts like 1up’s (and believe me, they’re not the only ones) that make me think most Westerners have absolutely no idea how to explain the phenomena and trends of Japan. I don’t blame them, because Japan’s culture is very complex. I would hesitate to predict a fad or trend in Japan, even with what I understand about the culture; but I have been dismayed by the lack of insight that I have seen online so far.

Statements like “Why would Japan ever go game-crazy over something that isn’t much of a game?” just show the Western viewpoint which they use in their analysis of the Japanese culture. This is a trap that Japanese people probably fall into even more than Westerners – but if you want to truly understand a foreign culture, you have to get out of your own for the analysis.

That is, you must use the emic approach – look at the actor from the actor’s perspective, not the observer’s. So unfortunately, I can’t help paint a picture of the video game community of the 1980’s here in Japan… but I can provide several explanations below; none of which involve circular reasoning.

After all, Japanese gamers didn’t just wake up one day and spontaneously become interested. They discovered visual novels, and perhaps their popularity developed in some ways from an earlier tradition: comics.

Why They Like Visual Novels, and You Don’t

The Western vs. Eastern Comic Book Culture

Let’s get one thing straight: Most visual novels are made in Japan, and non-Japanese-speakers only ever see a tiny fraction of what Japan releases. So simply in available titles, we can already see why they are more popular in Japan – there just aren’t as many games written in English to choose from. But with that said, we come to the question of “why?”; because many Japanese-made games that aren’t visual novels do very well in the West, including some that actually do better in the West. So what makes visual novels so different?

Unlike in the West, people in Japan from all walks of life read manga. Japanese and Western comics both have a long history, but the way they are viewed by the public today is very different. The image of a Western comic book fan is an uncool, nerdy, male social outcast who doesn’t talk to girls and likes fantasy more than reality. The video below pretty much sums up how they are seen:

This is a contrast to Japan.

At the time the first real dating sims were hitting stores in Japan, the West had already considered the only people to read comics as part of this nerdy sub-culture. Of course, the really hardcore “otaku” (a Japanese geek) make the average Western nerds seem cool by comparison – their fandom is pretty intense. But not all manga fans are considered to be otaku.

Therefore, where “comic book lovers” are a sub-culture of the entire Western population, otaku are more like a sub-culture of manga readers. In other words, it’s normal to read manga in Japan, but it’s not normal to be an otaku. In the West, it’s not even normal to read comics. That’s probably because manga are made for people of every strata of society, from very young children to businessmen and politicians. Yes, there are indeed manga specifically made for politicians or businessmen, and virtually every other sub-culture.

Of course, the recent superhero-movie boom, and the success of “graphic novels” – which are not as stigmatized as being “uncool” as comics – have slightly improved the image of comic books in the West in recent years; but the stereotype still remains. So Japanese manga readers are not judged as harshly in Japan as Westerners in the West. Making the transition to visual novels, therefore, is relatively trivial in Japan.

It’s All in the Lips

Well, it’s not all in the lips, but lips exemplify a big difference in the Japanese vs. the Western style of visual story-telling: fluid animation.

In their original language, some anime have perfect lip-syncing (but that usually costs a lot of money to make). However, most children’s anime set the bar low, either because children don’t notice or care as much. Growing up watching such anime (or what Japanese people would actually call “Japanese anime”), the average child would find things like the lack of syncing of the mouth animation with the sound to be normal. In fact, they probably would not even really think of it as a “lack of syncing” – that’s looking from a Western standpoint.

Westerners who are not accustomed to the style often complain about the ridiculousness of the animation. The popular American cartoon Family Guy provides an example of the way Westerners see anime, in this spoof of the popular old Japanese show called “Speed Racer:”

Foreigners who watch anime outside of Japan initially find it laughable, because they are used to more emphasis on such animation consistency. This is why you see Japan producing anime movies, and America producing CG (computer-generated) movies with accurate lip-syncing. Of course, you do occasionally see fantastic Western cartoons and gorgeous Japanese CG movies, but it is not nearly as common as the other way around. Also, you sometimes get developers who create games like “Tales of Hearts” for the Nintendo DS, which have two different versions available, one with anime cutcenes and one with CG cutscenes, to try to please all audiences.

Kablamo! Boom! Splat! …and Other Sounds Westerners Miss

What English speakers particularly don’t realize is that Japanese visual novels are fundamentally different from their English translated versions. What gets lost in translation is often made up for in visuals, which is why movies don’t have the same issues. So visual novels lack the visual stimuli that allow people to understand the subtleties of what’s happening. …Unless you speak Japanese.

Japanese has an an astonishing amount of onomatopoeia, which are much more a part of the language than in English. In fact, entire books are written on Japanese onomatopoeia, as it is such a fundamental part of the Japanese language.

There are different onomatopoeias for practically everything. For example, if you take a shower, and the water splashes against the wall, there are words to describe the sound of each. That is, the sound of the shower running, the sound of the water splashing against you, and the sound of the splashed water trickling down the wall.

Japanese might be the only language that describes these things in sounds, and even discriminates between different qualities of sounds. For example, the sound of rain depends on its intensity, and the sound of something falling depends on what material it’s made of. In addition, they have words to describe not sounds, but internal states, such as the feeling of having a headache. English does not have the same depth of description for these kinds of things, which makes translating them very challenging.

In this panel from "Azumanga Daioh," they opted not to give a direct English translation, instead using an accurate but unpoetic explanation ("throbbing headache")

Translators vary in their strategy for translating these types of things into english. Some opt to just erase the word entirely, while others keep the Japanese text hanging there, making the non-Japanese-speakers totally confused. Then there are some who try to use a natural-sounding English equivalent that are sometimes awkward, whereas others opt to describe the situation, such as in the picture above.

To elaborate on the intricacies of one example: When it just starts to rain, the sound is “potsuri-potsuri.” Then, the first drops of rain hit the ground, making a “potsu-potsu” sound. As the rain picks up, it goes “shito-shito.” Finally, “zaa-zaa” denotes heavy rain. But there’s more. Even the same words for onomatopoeias can be modified to express things like duration or intensity. For example, if a word is expressed loudly and drawn out (even orally, not just in text form) like “ZAAA-ZAAA,” then you know that it’s particularly gushing down.

Therefore, in Japanese, even without seeing something happen via animation, they can understand what’s going on based on the words that appear on the screen (i.e., “Potsu-potsu? Oh no, it’s starting to rain!”). It’s a beautiful and perplexing part of the language that alludes non-Japanese speakers because of its complexity. However, it makes up for what most Westerners would consider a flaw or an annoyance in the visual novel genre, because it helps keep the imagination flowing well after the animation stops.

Think of it this way: An English-made visual novel, despite not having to worry about translation errors, would probably still not be as good, because of the lack of onomatopoeias in the English language. Just like Twitter, the Japanese language is simply more conducive for this kind of thing.

The Bottom Line

A Japanese gamer playing a Japanese visual novel is probably not going to have the same experience as an English-speaker playing the same game after it was translated into English, for varying degrees of the factors I suggested above. Therefore, we can say with some confidence that Japanese people would probably like visual novels more than English-speakers, not because they’re Japanese, but because they were raised in Japan. Environment determines pop-culture tastes a lot more than genetics.

Part 4 will look into one game that’s changing the way we think about relationships.

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