Lessons from Japan: Sometimes Enagaging with Culture Requires Playing Video Games

I’ve been hanging out with my best friends from high school recently, which involved a bit (OK a lot) of retro video gaming.

The other day my friend and I lost on Mario Kart 64 to Toad, and those of you who have played that game will understand why it bought back memories of the time a Japanese school child beat me at Street Fighter 4 – an experience that taught me some valuable lessons I’d like to share with you.

Here’s what happened,

I had been in Japan about a week. And was taking a stroll of the area when I ended up finding a gaming arcade.

I decided to treat myself to a go on Street Fighter 4, partly since it was new and I had never played it, and partly so I didn’t look like a random foreigner just walking around and gawking at all the awesome technology we don’t have in the UK (although in truth that is what I was).

Now I used to play Street Fighter as a kid, back when it was in its second iteration, and as I played at the arcade machine I was feeling pretty good. The gameplay was basically unchanged and first few rounds I was going just fine.

Then I saw those fateful words, “Player 2 has entered the game”: the gaming equivalent of having a glove slapped across your face.

I’ll spare the painful details – a mercy not granted to me by my opponent – but in a few short minutes I was down and out.

As I slouched away in defeat, I looked back to catch a glimpse of my opponent (The machines were lined up back-to-back, meaning that you couldn’t see who you were playing from in front of your own machine).

Yup, school kid. Looked about 6 or 7 years old. 8 max. And he had destroyed me.

"Go home and be a family man"

Guile: master of trash talk

As I look back on this experience, there are a few lessons I see to be learnt for me as I try to engage with the Japanese culture. Lessons that I think will also be of value to any seeking to engage with a different culture.

  1. Video games are a part of life for most boys today, especially in Japan, which means that when you’re trying to understand the culture of young men you have to take games into account. I don’t have any stats to hand but I’m fairly confident that the majority of young (I.e. Under 35) men in Japan will have grown up playing computer games. This affects worldview, attitudes, and shared-experiences as much as books and movies.
  2. This means that if you want to engage with that culture you need to play, or at least familiarise yourself with, computer games that they would have played as kids. So for myself I am currently playing through Dragon Quest 5, at the same time as (very slowly) working my way through ‘Kokoro’ – by famous Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki. Both are important for helping me understand the Japanese culture, as are kids movies and music from 20 years ago.
  3. If you’re playing against a grappler on StreetFighter 4, don’t try to use dragonpunch. If you miss you’ll lose about half your health in the counterattack.

Now, just in case, here’s what I’m not saying,

I’m not saying missionaries in Japan should play every video game available.First, there’s not enough time. Secondly, not all games are particularly edifying. The same is of course true of films and books – and I don’t just mean in Japan.

I’m not saying missionaries need to become masters of video games. I’m considering taking up kendo when I go back to Japan. But I’m not going to beat myself up if I’m not taking part in prefecture tournaments within 4 years.

I’m not saying it’s good and healthy to play video games 24/7. Some would say that Japanese children spend too much time playing video games. I would agree. And I would add that British people spend too much time watching TV. Other people spend too much time in the gym. I’m taking it as read that we all need to maintain a healthy balance in our lives.

But there are some games that are almost defining for a generation – in the same way that some books are so widely read that they shape the way a whole generation thinks. The point is engaging with culture. All of it. And in Japan, from my experience, that includes video games.

So if you’re type who prayers for Japanese missionaries please pray that we’d have the humility to engage with ‘childish’ games, books, movies, etc. and the discernment to know what and how to engage with.

And if you’re Japanese or living in Japan what are some books/films/TV shows/games/etc that you think are good to be aware of?

And if you’re still not sure what I’ve been talking about, check out this video of Daigo ‘the Beast’ Umehara – the gaming equivalent of Orson Wells – in action,


2 thoughts on “Lessons from Japan: Sometimes Enagaging with Culture Requires Playing Video Games

  1. Cathryn

    I do think there is something valuable in becoming fluent in the local culture – whether that’s video games or country music or beer gardens. Didn’t Paul talk about becoming greek to the greeks and jews to the jews or something like that? Unless obv it’s dodgy. Next up, we want you to try Pachinko for us all. Take on the old ladies.



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