Some Interesting Japanese Culture in Nintendo Games

Taken at the Kyoto Nintendo headquarters when I applied as a new graduate, 2019

Nintendo has a long history as a traditional Kyoto company that originally manufactured hanafuda cards. Nintendo has a long history of dabbling in different cultural arena’s that have now become staples of Japan. In this post, I will go over some of the interesting Japanese culture I have noticed in Nintendo games as a bilingual Japanese and English speaker.

In fact, this is one of the things that has been the most fun for me as someone who has learned Japanese as an adult. I grew up playing games like Animal Crossing, Mario, Zelda, DK64 with that sexy rap, etc, and one of the more interesting things now as a Japanese speaker is to revisit these games from a fresh perspective by playing them in Japanese. It’s interesting to see how the language impacts the way characters come across, as well as some of the game mechanics.

I looked it up to see if the DK 64 rap was any different in Japanese, but unfortunately they just play the English song with Japanese subtitles… very disappointing, I know.

Japanese culture in The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda is an interesting series in terms of Japanese cultural influence, because it is a series based on the childhood adventures creator Shigeru Miyamoto had in the caves and forests around his home in Kyoto, but is also designed to be a series that is more accessible to international audiences.

In Japan, Zelda has kind of gained a reputation as being the Nintendo series that is ultra popular outside of Japan, while it still have its share of domestic fans. That being said, there are definitely some easy-to-spot influences from the Japanese culture to be found in the Zelda games.

Perhaps the most obvious of these is the origin of the triforce.

What is the origin of the triforce in The Legend of Zelda?

The image of the triforce is taken directly from Japan’s feudal history. The Hōjō clan, one of the most powerful warrior clans in Japan in the Sengoku period, used the ‘three dragonscales’ as their official clan emblem. This would become the visual inspiration for the triforce used in The Legend of Zelda series.

YOSHITORA, 1863

The Hōjō clan was in control of the Kamakura shogunate between 1203 and 1333, particularly turbulent and unstable times in Japanese history (Sengoku literally means warring states period). This time period saw the introduction of Buddhism into Japan, as well as the attempted invasion of Mongolian forces, the event that would be the inception of the Japanese concept of kamikaze, meaning divine wind. This happened when monsoons destroyed nearly all Mongolian invading ships before they could reach Japan shores. This was a time of great instability, newfound spirituality, and a new calamitous threat approaching from a far-off land. Sound familiar? While this is just conjecture on my part, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was going through Shigeru Miyamoto’s mind when he was crafting the original world for The Legend of Zelda.

Hōjō clan… Hōjō clan? That sounds familiar. Wasn’t that in the Zelda games?

You’re probably thinking of the Yiga clan, which is likely a direct inspiration. Yea, especially in Breath of the Wild, Nintendo is definitely embracing these origins more and more.

Japanese culture in the Animal Crossing series

The Animal Crossing series as whole and especially the original western GameCube release is full of Japanese culture. Some of the more obvious examples of this would be some of the original holidays and unique items, etc.

That being said, I only only started to notice more of the interesting example when I began playing through the games in Japanese. Let’s take a look at some of these examples.

Japanese culture and Tom Nook

Tom Nook is a tanuki, which is also known as the Japanese racoon dog. That’s funny, i’ve never heard anyone who knows about tanuki not call them tanuki, so that was a first for me to hear. Tanuki are an extremely prominent part of Japanese folklore, being known to bring good fortune and bountiful…fertility. Tanuki are also known for their gigantic…orbs.

Orbs of fertility!

Tanuki statues can frequently be seen darted outside Japanese temples, gardens, and neighborhoods. In Japanese folklore tanuki have the ability to transform themselves and objects around them, and are often depicted has wearing a single leaf on their forehead. This is why items are all represented as leaves in Animal Crossing. Despite all of their abilities to transform their surroundings and generate bountiful wealh (let’s forget about the fertility thing) Tanuki are often portrayed as mischievous across Japanese culture. Basically, Tom Nook is a token tanuki. He’s a greedy town/island transforming tycoon hound with a special ability to enhance local villager fertility.

Sorry…ill stop

Unique Japanese communication in Animal Crossing

A brief note about shujyoshi (終助詞)

One of the most interesting things I noticed when revisiting the Animal Crossing series in Japan was the unique use of Japanese shujyoshi (終助詞) or ‘Ending particles’, which is a unique component of the Japanese language and culture. For those who aren’t familiar with the Japanese language, please allow me to explain. Japanese incorporates ending particles, that are (really oversimplifying) essentially unique types of periods you can choose to end your sentence with to create a certain type of nuance. Often these ending particles have a particular nuance in terms of politeness, or more appropriately, the level of honorific politeness they add to a given sentence. Those who have studied even very basic Japanese probably know the word desu (です). This word acts almost like a period, but also at the same time as a sentence qualifier. It simultaneously signifies that the sentence is ending, but also that the sentence is being spoken in Teineigo (丁寧語), which is essentially the standard polite form of Japanese that new Japanese learners will memorize first.

Unfortunately, they do not teach you how to talk like a Yakuza character on your first day of Japanese class.

The important thing to remember is that Shujyoshi (終助詞) are always placed at the ending of a sentence, and that they change the entire meaning of the sentence that comes before it. You can think of it like a question mark in English. A question mark qualifies the entire sentence as a question. In fact, this works very similarly in Japanese, except the shujyoshi in this case would be ka (か)。If there is ka (か) at the end of a sentence in Japanese, the sentence is likely a question.

Japanese in Animal Crossing: shujyoshi (終助詞) are kuchiguse (口癖)

In terms of studying the Japanese culture and language in Nintendo games, the use of shujyoshi in Animal Crossing is really interesting.

Why?

Because there are many, many different forms of shujyoshi in Japnaese beyond the question mark example I gave above. Imagine if there were 20…30 different characters in English that changed the overall nuance of the sentence that came before it. This is pretty much the case in Japanese.

The type of shujyoshi you use plays a large role in creating your overall personality in Japanese, and becomes a large part of your speech patterns and common speaking habits. In animal crossing, every single character has a unique shujyoshi that Nintendo has labeled on the official Animal Crossing website I found (From 2001!) as kuchiguse (口癖)。The English localization teams had a serious job on their hands when they translated the game. For example, goldie the dog finishes every sentence with wan, which is kind of a pun. Wan is the sound dogs make in Japanese, but there is also a popular shujyoshi wa, which is kind of a more feminine way to place emphasis onto your point. It’s a bit like a feminine exclamation mark? So they changed wa to wan to drive home both goldie’s feminine personality and appearance, but also the fact that she’s a dog.

Ha…haha…ha…

There’s hundreds and hundreds of examples like this. I played Animal Crossing: New Horizons in Japanese for nearly a year and then switched the language settings to English to see what it was like. It’s… like a totally different island. The characters, their names and speech patterns…they’re all different. It’s…it’s…it’s CHAOS!!! Character’s names, their personalities, the names of items, I really had to stumble my way through it again when I picked up the English version. And while I haven’t played them myself in Japanese, videos I have seen online suggest that the older titles in the series had even more unique Japanese nuggets in them.

Cultural differences between Nintendo’s Japanese Marketing vs. English US Marketing

One of the common themes you will see across all Japanese-English localization, particularly localization to the United States, is that Japanese marketing favors cute and friendly designs, while US marketing favors rough, gritty, HARDCORE design. I have never seen this disparity on display so clearly as it is with the marketing localization for the Pikmin series. Since the series began in 2001, you can see how Nitendo tried to create an emotional connection to the pikmin in the game. They’re cute, they’re helpless, and they need you to help them!

Then the game came to the US

Now the Pikmin are cute…and maybe even helpless but…THEY’RE ALSO EXPENDABLE SOLDIERS TO BE USED AND DUMPED IN THE PURSUIT OF PLANET-WIDE DOMINATION! Too much? Check out the two commercials below and find out for yourself.

Ai no Uta: The main song used in the Japanese Pikmin commercials

I had a hard time finding it with English subs so please don’t mind the poor video quality. This song is called Ai no Uta (愛の歌), literally means the ‘song of love. ‘ This song actually sold more copies in Japan than the actual pikmin game.

Here is a compilation more recent Japanese commercial for Pikmin 3.

As you can see this whle dynamic of cute vs. tough is pretty prevalent in these commercials, and you can really see how the culture of how games are presented in Japan is different from the US. Another good example of this is in the cultural difference of how the Kirby games are marketed in Japan and America.

Japanese Kirby marketing vs. American Kirby marketing

I think this is another pretty good example. The cultural differences between Japan and the US are pretty clear-cut here, which Japan opting for a more cute and approachable Kirby, while the Kirby in the US looks like he kicks some serious…ash. This is consistent across all of the game-art for the Kirby franchise from what I have seen.

What it was like applying for Nintendo of Japan

In 2019 I applied to the main Nintendo branch in Kyoto of Japan. I went through the new university application process along with other Japanese students in my class. It was a crazy and depressing time. But at the Setsumeikai (説明会) (Basically a mandatory seminar you have to attend to get a job interview as a new graduate. It’s essentially a total waste of time, and a scheduling nightmare, but you have to show up and give everyone your best ‘I’m listening very intently, honorably, and diligently to everything you’re saying‘ face) . The CEO of the company came up and gave a rousing speech about how they were looking for unique go-getters, for candidates that were willing to challenge something before they were told.

Well that sounds like me! I moved all the way across the world to Japan. I’m one of the only non-Japanese people in this rooms of thousands. Now I’m feeling motivated.

In order to distinguish myself from other applicants, and as someone one hoped to become an international correspondent for their localization department, I created a comprehensive localization analysis for several Nintendo games. As Animal Crossing: New Horizons was scheduled to be released early in 2020 and was one of their new games, I focused on the localization changes and unique character-building and linguistic characteristics of the Animal Crossing series. I was pretty proud of it. I sweated, I typed until faint calluses of pain and tears formed on my border-crossing phalanges. And then I never got an interview. Success!!

Wait…what?

It was pretty disappointing, but I guess this kind of thing isn’t what they were looking for? That being said, the report has been sitting in my google drive for 2 years, a cold reminder of that time I didn’t get that job at Nintendo.

Oh so sad

So I thought I would at least put it to some good use and publish some of my more interesting findings here. After all, this is my website. NOBODY CAN TELL ME NO HERE!!! NOBODY!!!! *Attempts to calm-self down by consuming the new season chocolate-mint flavored pocky. yum!* I hope you enjoyed reading through some of my ramblings.

If you are interested in reading more about my life going through university in Japan click the link below.

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