Saturday, 14 March 2009

Cool Cultures

I often wonder what it is about some cultures that makes them 'cooler' in the eye of gamer nerd-dom than others. These days Japanese culture is all the rage overseas (which is odd, given the fact that the country is on its knees in almost every sense, utterly lacking in self-confidence, and faced with a hopeless and near-apocalyptic future of population crash and economic catastrophe). Other cultural 'cool spots' include I suppose France, ancient Greece, perhaps the UK depending on who you talk to, and maybe Thailand and Cambodia. Though none can currently challenge the overarching might of Japaneseness in the nation of Geekia.

For example, one of the biggest and most popular Swords & Wizardry projects is Project Samurai - Mike D's laudable attempt at creating a sort of pulp/fantasy Japan version of the game. It's good stuff. But it makes me wonder - why has nobody started up similar projects about, say, a pulp/fantasy Korea? Or Tonga? Or Madagascar? Or Turkey?

One reason I suppose would be familiarity. Japanese comics are readily available in the West, and popular, and this means people know about the tropes. But that is really begging the question. Japanese comics are readily available in the West because there is a market for them, and there is a market for them because people think Japanese culture is cool (as opposed to Polish culture, or whatever). It doesn't explain the root cause of it.

I've lived in Japan now for five years off and on, and have to admit that I just don't get it. I like it here, otherwise I wouldn't have stayed, but it seems very ordinary to me now and certainly no more or less appealing as a setting for role playing games than ancient Akkadia, Timbuktu, Fiji or Arabia. I'm obviously in the minority.


  1. My quick take: historical accident led to a robust film industry with a large body of action-adventure material, including the works of at least one actual artistic genius (Kurosawa and likely Tezuka) whose works were directly influenced by American pop culture, and directly influenced American pop culture even when shorn of Japanese trappings (Magnificent Seven, Astro Boy & Speed Racer). That's just not true of Timbuktu or Poland. The only other place that I can think of where it is true is Hong Kong, which has a similarly large influence on gamers and pop culture.

  2. To add to what jamused has said, another historical accident: the invention of cyberpunk, rooted in an idea of hyper-modern Japanese culture, followed (or accompanied) by cinema that viscerally exploited this imagined Japanese futurescape (eg. Ghost in the Shell, Ringu). Japan comes to define an imagined future, and the nightscape of Tokyo only feeds that.
    But I can't explain it. Japan is just cool

  3. France? You think? I don't see that one.

    I say we get behind Poland for awhile. They've had a pretty exciting (if depressing) history, and it'd be something new. :)

  4. One of the best campaigns I ever ran was an Al Qadim campaign, and I've often experienced a jones to set up something like that again. I recommend a reading of A Thousand And One Arabian Nights, especially translated by Sir Richard Burton. The prose alone is well worth it, everything sounds so much more vivid "the princess was as graceful as a gazelle at the oasis and as fair as the moon" and suchlike. Awesome stuff.

  5. I suspect that in addition to what Jamused said, the sheer prolific-ness (Is that the right word? God only knows) of anime series might have been a factor as well.

  6. re: Zachary

    Well, I think the French are cool. If only because a little bit of that 'pleasure loving' stereotype seems to be true. At least that's what I've seen in my visits to that country. And they make a bloody good coffee too.

  7. It's a result of cultural export, pure and simple. Japan successfully exported anime and manga (whether or not it wanted to - manga available in the west hardly represents that available in Japan), and other cultures didn't.

    I think there's a nerdy counter-cultural element to this too. Japan is completely misunderstood in the west, or ignored by the mainstream, and it has always been the domain of misfits and nerds to interpret it for the English-speaking west (look at Lafcadio Hearne as the classic example of this).

    Some of the other ones have been done too - ancient greek and roman ideas, for example, are the bread and butter of fantasists within English-language literary and art history, so they're hardly going to attract nerds seeking something new, are they...?

    Personally I have not really tried setting campaigns in Japan because I always felt I didn't get it enough. But having lived in Matsue, I am now inclined to a Meiji-era magical detective style story...

  8. As Faustusnotes already said. One simple word explains the love affair nerds have with Japan: "Animu"

    Prior to the explosion of anime as a cultural phenomenon in the West Japan was little more than 'that countryful of ninjas where they eat raw fish, torture each other on gameshows and miniaturize everything' on the collective pop culture radar.

    Sure, there were films like "Red Sun" that tried to do for samurai what Bruce Lee had for Chinese kung fu. But by-and-large western perceptions of Japan even into the early '90s were dominated by "Endurance", "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Seven Samurai".

  9. I often slip bits of various Mesopotamian cultures into my settings, although I used to do so far more often and more centrally.

  10. I blame the huge video game craze in the 80's for the "geek culture" obsession with Japan. What kid in the 80's didn't own a japanese built video game system whether it was a Nintendo or a Sega?
    As far other "cool cultures" that are getting a touch old here in the states is the obsession with Ireland. Every white person I know claims at least 1/16 Irish heritage and they let everyone know about it this time of year.

  11. It would take a book to explain the popularity of Japan in the west, but I think some of the fellow bloggers are right when they point the ammount of material avaiable as the great cause for popularity.

    Exotic as Poland or Toga may be there just isn't much of either around. I can't remember the title of the last fantasy or sci-fi movie mega-production I saw from Madagascar either. :)

  12. Speaking for myself, it is purely the work of the samurai films of the 50's & 60's. Those are my inspiration pure and simple.

    I have never cared much for Anime personally, though I have seen a few.

    I do like Usagi Yojimbo, though I have never really collected that either.

    Of course, I am just as big a fan of Vikings as I am of Samurai. I can't get enough Norse action either.

  13. Vikings?!

    Maybe an idea for the next S&W project? :)


  14. Thanks for the good comments, everyone. I'm a long-term viking lover too, and the Viking Sourcebook for AD&D 2e is an old favourite. Check it out if you haven't already.

    The answer, I suppose, is for people who know a lot about Poland, Tonga, Madagascar or Timbuktu to get creating Swords & Wizardry projects... ;)

  15. Yes that 2E Vikings sourcebook is one of my favorites too. (That and Glory of Rome - the HBO Rome series really got me back into that setting too). Too many cool cultures out there. :)

  16. It's worth remembering as well that the other cultures mentioned here were poor and/or under a dictatorship in the 80s when geek culture took off and started gaining influence in the west. I don't think the anime we see in the west is much of a voice for Japanese culture, but it is at least a voice, which other East, Central and South-East Asian cultures at that time didn't have. Japan was able to export cultural commodities to the west precisely because it was richer and freer than its neighbours, who were either still demonstrating against their dictators (in South Korea) or still firmly under the booted heel (in the Phillipines, Thailand, etc).

    I don't doubt that if those countries were in a position to develop an internal cultural market they could export to western nerds, they would be equally important to us.

  17. I never had the Viking sourcebook but I did have the Glory of Rome. It was sorta cool.

  18. I concur with much of the analysis here. I'd say the cultural exchange started a lot earlier though. "Japonisme" was huge influence on European artists in the late 18th century and onwared. Artists like Lautrec and Whistler and big swaths of the Art Noveau movement were crazy about Ukiyo E prints and other artifacts from Japan. I think the key was it was an exotic aesthetic that was at once understandable. I agree that anime and Godzilla movies are probably the direct influence to the "cool factor" but the pump has been primed, almost subliminally, from a lot farther back.

    "A Mighty Fortress" was one of my faves of the green sourcebooks, I actually ran an Elizabethan era campaign with it. Say what you want about 2nd. Ed., they did add a lot of neat departures from bog standard Arthurian/Tolkienian fantasy in their day.

  19. I definitely agree with previous comments about a steady stream of imports. I live far away from the urban coasts, but my collection of Japanese goods not only includes new dvds, but also my father's souvenirs from his military tour there in the late 1950's.
    I also think that FRPG designers can instantly relate to another feudal history with armored swordsmen, castles, and supernatural monsters. The Gygaxian world melded most of Europe, so you really don't see "breaks" between content from France v. Poland (also mashed together in grade-school). More gamers from abroad need to enlighten us.

  20. Great points everyone. I'm particularly interested in the idea of Japan as the only 'developed' nation which wasn't European or European in origin during the 80's. Maybe if India had been as rich as Japan during that period we'd now be seeing Western geek culture going crazy for the Mahabarata?

  21. I'd say the fact that Japan was the only non-European empire in the 19th century might have some influence over that.

    India also has it's own movement not in the geek subculture but in the new age crowd with yoga and those things.

    Africa really got walked over with colonialism and slavery and we're only now starting to rediscover their culture, the same would go with Aztec and Incan.

  22. "Maybe if India had been as rich as Japan during that period we'd now be seeing Western geek culture going crazy for the Mahabarata?"

    Geek culture oughta give the Mahabarata and the Ramayana a look, too. Plenty of rip snortin' mythological action goin' on there. That would be a pretty awesome campaign.

  23. I would sooo play an Indian themed D&D if it was available. I would write it up myself if I was more familiar with their history.

  24. My Yoon-suin setting has a bit of faux-India in it, but I don't know anywhere near as much about Indian history as I'd like. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the partition of India, but all my knowledge is from the 18th century onwards.

  25. I should have mentioned this before. I think another reason for the "success" of Japanese culture in the west is the language.

    Japanese is a unique language that while influenced by others as distant as Chinese and Portuguese is technically a language isolate, a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical relationship with other living languages; that is, one that has not been demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common to any other language.

    Also, as Asian languages go it is remarkably easy on the ears and eyes (when written in the Latin alphabet).

    Lets take some comparisons, Chinese is a total tonal nightmare of a language apparently lacking any punctuation when spoken to the point you can't distinguish individual words or phrases and it can be hard to discern if two people are telling jokes or about to jump at each other's throats (I know because I've had several Chinese flatmate).

    Take a look at:

    khao cha dai pai thiao mueang lao

    Cộng hòa xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam
    Cái thằng chồng em nó chẳng ra gì.

    Bhārat Gaṇarājya
    chokrā zyādā baṛā hai

    Look at all those nice accents, I don't even know the name for some of those. In comparison here's some Japanese:

    Nihon ni ikitai
    Nani o tabemasu ka?

    All Japanese vowels are "pure", meaning there are no diphthongs and that makes it easier to parrot. In movies and anime there is a variety of words and expressions which are repeated again and again so its easy to pick them up. Particularly the expletives they like to use so much (Ute! Ganbare! Yata! Yosh! Sugoi!) and all the etiquette means soon you'll know about "Sumimasen", "Kudasai" and other such words.

    From a gaming point of view it couldn't be simpler to make Japanese-sounding names and words on the spot. All you have to do is pick sequences of consonant-vowel (ka ga mu re ni to ba, etc) and throw a few ts' and shi around for good measure:


    I have no idea if any of those is remotely Japanese but they sure sound like it.

    Then there is the Japanese propensity to use words taken directly from English; coupled with the variety of vowel sounds compared to English and their (supposedly) inability to pronounce "R" and "H" has led to Japangrish or Engrish which can be either hilarious or quite cool, the same sentence can have a mix of native and foreign words for very memorable effects.

    Something like:

    "Ghost recon assault team"

    Could be said:

    Gosuto Rikonu Assaruto Chimu


    Yoki teisatu mukaeutsu buntai (I think...fingers crossed I got the online dictionary right)

    Or something that mixes both.

  26. edsan: I think you're right - Japanese is incredibly easy to pronounce for Europeans, and relatively easy to learn if you're an anime geek. There's a barrier to Chinese or Indian cultures which isn't there for Japanese. That can't be the whole story though - Malay is a very easy language to pronounce, but you don't see much Malay in Western geek culture!

    Pedant's point: Japanese don't have a problem with 'h' - the main difficulties are 'r' and 'l' (the Japanese 'r' is actually half way between the English 'r' and 'l') and the 'si' and 'ti' sounds, neither of which exist in Japanese (so they get pronounced 'shi' and 'chi').

    By the way, I think it's now generally accepted that Japan is part of the Altaic language family, and thus at least genetically related to Korean, the Tungusic languages like Manchu, and the Turkic languages. Apparently linguists still argue about this, but most Japanese people seem accept it as fact, especially now that racism against Koreans isn't as strong as it used to be. Certainly it's easy to notice that Korean and Japanese grammar and rhythm is basically the same, and that Turkish people can learn Japanese very easily and vice-versa. I used to know a Turkish girl living in Japan, and she often used to talk about it with our Japanese friends. Funny how ordinary people tend to accept the evidence before their eyes, while academic linguists argue the point forever...