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  (Source: Inquistr)
West misinterprets fantasy based on its own views

Nintendo Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7974), a silver-haired veteran of the gaming industry, finished the last decade on a triumphant high note, ridigng on the achievements of the best-selling Nintendo DS (2004) and Nintendo Wii (2006).  But the new decade has thus far been less than kind to the chipmaker, with three straight years of losses.  Success stories are surprisingly few and far between at Nintendo these days.

I. Hit Title Ignites Controversy, Protests in the West

One product that has seemingly beat the slump is Tomodachi Korekushon: Shin Seikatsu ("Tomodachi Collection: New Life") ("tomodachi" means "friend" in Japanese), a virtual life simulator for Nintendo's "Miiverse" that allows Nintendo 3DS users to create their own avatars and interact over internet with friends and family in a 3D animated world.

In its launch weekend alone this February in Japan it moved an eye-popping 405,000 units -- far ahead the second place seller's 87,000 haul.    That's just shy of quadrupling the sales of the title's predecessor, which would go on to sell 3.7 million units in Japan alone.  In Japan the new title has helped to revive sluggish Nintendo 3DS and 3DS XL sales in Japan, keeping Nintendo a step ahead of its arch-rival Sony Corp. (TYO:6758) who markets the rival Vita portable gaming device.  But now even as Nintendo looks to for the first time launch the quirky, but beloved regional title overseas, its embroiled in a social controversy that could impact its global sales.

Tomodachi

Controversy ignited after the gamemaker refused to allow users with same-sex Mii avatars to marry each other or enter into relationships.  From launch, Nintendo decided to only allow male-female in-game romance, give those who enter into such relationships exclusive content.

However, a bug in the 3DS game briefly allowed male characters to marry their virtual lovers in-game, until Nintendo "fixed" the issue along with other bugs in a recent patch.

Responding to recent controversy issuing a statement, Nintendo said of the decision:

[We] never intended to make any form of social commentary.  The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation.  We hope that all of our fans will see that Tomodachi Life was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game, and that we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary.

But for some gay Japanese gamers, the decision to keep the popular title to a heterosexual cartoon fantasy world has left them distraught.  Tye Marini, 23, a self-proclaimed Nintendo fan from Tempe, Arizona, has launched a global campaign called "Miiquality" challenging the decision.  He comments:

I want to be able to marry my real-life fiancé's Mii, but I can't do that.  My only options are to marry some female Mii, to change the gender of either my Mii or my fiance's Mii or to completely avoid marriage altogether and miss out on the exclusive content that comes with it. 

It's more of an issue for this game because the characters are supposed to be a representation of your real life.  You import your personalised characters into the game. You name them. You give them a personality. You give them a voice. They just can't fall in love if they're gay.

Nintendo has responded, defending its stance, but hinting it might reconsider it at some point, writing of the Twitter campaign:

[T]he ability for same-sex relationships to occur in the game was not part of the original game that launched in Japan.  That game is made up of the same code that was used to localize it for other regions outside of Japan.

[However], we have heard (the #miiquality) and thoughtfully considered all the response.  We will continue to listen and think about the feedback. We're using this as an opportunity to better understand our consumers and their expectations of us at all levels of the organization.

Mr. Marini and his fellow "Miiquality" Twitter activists are determined to continue making their voices heard until Nintendo changes course.  He calls on users not to boycott the game, but to post to the internet, including Twitter, urging Nintendo to reconsider.  He comments:

I would hope that they recognize the issue with the exclusion of same-sex relationships in the game and make an effort to resolve it.  Until then, Miiquality will continue to raise awareness of the issue.

The Japanese title is scheduled to be released on June 6, 2014 across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

II. The Struggle to Understand Japan's Wildly Different Culture, Views in the West

To Westerners in the U.S. and Europe this controversy sounds all too familiar.  After all, they've seen similar debates occur in recent months. Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich recently resigned under fire, obstensibly over a political donation he made in support of banning gay marriage.  Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the family at the center of cable television's second most-watched show Duck Dynasty, was temporarily suspended after making remarks regarding his religious opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage.

But what Westerners are missing is that Nintendo's stance basically has nothing in common with those incidents.  It's not a matter of politics or religion, it's a matter of culture and tradition.  

More than anything the campaign against the prohibition highlights the challenges for Japanese media in offering its wildly different societal views to a U.S. market, which attempts to cast those views into their own belief space.

Japanese culture -- and likely most employees of Nintendo -- embrace homosexuality far more than their pro-gay rights heterosexual Western peers, to some extent.  However, like many things in the Japanese culture, there's highly specific venues where gay culture and homosexuality is celebrated.

A crucial first point to make is that in general Japanese people have no strong opposition to homosexuality, unlike many people in the U.S. and some people in Europe.

In Japan opposition to homosexuality on a religious basis is virtually nonexistent.  Three in five Japanese people report having no institutionalized religious beliefs (other than traditional spirtualism -- Shinto philosophy).  And of Japan's religious minority, seven out of eight people of faith are buddhists.  Traditionally Japan's buddhist community has been associated with a strong tradition of homosexual relationships.  So unlike in the U.S. Japan's views on gay marriage generally have little to do with religion (less than 2 percent of Japanese identify as Christian, Muslim, or Jewish) and in the rare instances when they do it's the religious community supporting the right to be gay.

Likewise the legality in Japan is much different.  In the U.S. while sodomy laws have been deemed unconstitutional in both a heterosexual and homosexual context, a third of states (16 states, in total) have refused to repeal their laws.  Unenforceable as they may be, these states view the laws as a rebuke to homosexuality, which in the U.S. is strongly opposed largely on a religious basis by some Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

In addition to sodomy laws, men who have sex with men are denied the ability to act as blood donors in the U.S. and until recently were denied the right to serve in the U.S. military while openly gay.

On the flip side, the U.S. has a number of anti-discrimination laws and regulations at the federal level, and some such laws at the state level.  Some states now allow gay people to marry and adopt children (others continue to legally oppose this).  In short in the U.S. the issue sees a strongly divided population, with some actively looking to try to "stop" homosexual activity, and others looking to offer homosexuals the same rights heterosexuals enjoy.

Legally the situation in Japan is very different.  Gays are allowed to donate blood and were never banned from military service; in fact in the days of the samurai homosexual pedophilic relationships were actually institutionalized.

Samurai Kissing boyfriend
A samurai kisses a male Kabuki actor in drag.  In traditional Japanese theater -- Kabuki -- women were played by teenage boys.  Most of these youth made extra money on the side work as prostitutes for older (male) samurais and soldiers. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

On the flip side Japanese unmarried couples -- gay or straight -- can not adopt.  There are no laws banning discrimination against gays, although incidents of such practices in Japan are believed to be rarer than in the U.S.  And because there is no legal basis for gay marriage in Japan, commited gay couples can not enjoy financial benefits such as retirement.  That said, again, the situation in Japan is rather different as there's a stronger public insurance marketplace and there's fewer restrictions when it comes to traditional points of contention the U.S. such as hospital visitation and finances.

In short homosexuals in Japan lack the rights they have in parts of the U.S., but also lack the legal discrimination that other parts of the U.S. employ.

From a big picture perspective Japan strongly embraces homosexuality culturally both via classic literary works celebrity gay relationships (which have no significant equivalents in the U.S. in the 1800s) and comic-genres like "yaoi" and "bara" which focus on gay relationships and are popular among Japanese of all sexual orientations.  But the nation's embrace of homosexuality is much like the nation's views on expression of emotion in general -- only express them in certain contexts.

In Japan birth rates have sharply declined.  Half of young Japanese adult women and a quarter of Japanese men in recent studies have reported saying that they had no interest in having sex (with fellow humans of either gender), and no interest in marriage/having kids.  Japan's population is expected to fall in half by 2100, creating a massive slow-boiling economic crisis.

III. You Can't Put a Western Context on Japanese Tradition

In many ways the Japanese culture today is defined by fantasy and a disconnect from human emotion.  George Mirren (not his real name) an expatriot living in Japan summarized the situation well (including contexualizing it to gay rights) telling The Daily Yomiuri:

In America, we’re always seeking ‘the real me’ or ‘my real feelings.’ Everything here, on the other hand, is situational.  In America, gay men spend a lot of time hiding their real self. So when you come to a culture where people aren’t interested in your real self, it’s a relief.

In that context, it's easier to understand why there's been no major outcry from the gay community about Nintendo's decision.  In fact, Nintendo itself is arguably a byproduct of the country's disposition towards fantasy and idealized, artificial versions of reality.  It is no coincidence that Japan long dominated the global gaming market.

And yet as much sense as the Nintendo decision to seemingly ignore gay relationships and gay marriage makes in context of its culture, the problem is that Japan is hoping to sell the game in regions like Europe and the U.S. with wildly different social views.  Even those who support its decision in these regions will typically do so on a radically different basis.  The West seems bound to misunderstand, misinterpret, and misrepresent Nintendo's viewpoint as it seemingly involves an issue that has a far different context in their culture.

Gay marriage
In Japan where most people are apathetic to gay relationships -- and in many case, relationships in general -- in the U.S. people are passionately opposed to or in support of gay civil rights. [Image Source: GuardianLV]

But while Japan's apathy towards the issue may not be viewed as "good enough" from the perspective of Western activists on either sides of the debate in a Western context, the West is unlikely to be able to change Japan's strong cultural traditions which in many cases are centuries old.  And history suggests that while Western efforts to push its culture context and views on other parts of the world are fraught with troubles, history also suggest that the West inevitably will continue to make such efforts, as we are seeing in the case of "Miiquality". 

Thus Nintendo looks destined for an unexpected controversy at a time when it was just hoping to channel a bit of the sales magic it's seeing in Japan.

Sources: AP, Miiquality, BBC News





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