It’s rare to find a Japanese video game in North America that hasn’t undergone some changes during localization, but Yo-Kai Watch may have bucked that trend entirely.
Yo-Kai Watch has been called the next big thing in Japan, but now it’s arrived in North America and almost unchanged from its Japanese version. Image courtesy: Level-5/Nintendo
The game, developed by Level-5 and published by Nintendo, is dizzyingly popular in Japan with over 8 million units sold and the game’s sequel well on its way to matching those numbers.
While sales still pale in comparison to competitor Pokemon X and Y, which has total worldwide sales of 14.15 million as of September this year, Yo-Kai Watch has finally made it to North America and that could make all the difference.
In early November, the game went on sale in Canada and has received positive reviews. Having played the game myself, I can say that it is keeping me entertained despite it clearly being for younger players.
What has surprised me about the game is how well it represents Japan despite its English localization.
In 2009, I was in Japan doing a little bit of travelling. While staying in a small town called Hakata in Fukuoka Prefecture, I jaywalked. It’s something that I do almost daily here in Toronto, but in Japan something strange happened after I reached the other side of the road.
As I walked, two cars passed me and honked. Two more cars passed me and they honked too. It was such a strange thing. I ended up asking my cousin what that was all about and he described it to me like this:
In Japan, you have to imagine that everyone is a nail. If one nail starts to raise up just a little bit, someone will come along to knock it back down.
The drivers seeing that I jaywalked honked at me basically to tell me I had done something wrong. It didn’t matter that I was a tourist, they would do it to anyone to keep them in line.
In Yo-Kai Watch there are a number of streetlights around the game’s world. If you don’t wait until the light says you can walk you’ll eventually have to fight an almost invincible yokai.
I lost the fight, but it really brought me back to my memories of being in Japan. The idea that something will punish you even for the smallest of crimes that usually go unseen is such a strong Japanese concept.
If you’ve played games like Grand Theft Auto you know what traffic lights usually mean nothing to characters, so it was a strangely reminiscent experience.
Other things like the food, the products, and even the design of the Yokai have been kept in contact even after the English localization process.
Players can buy real Japanese food, convenience stores are designed just like their real-world counterparts, and the city feels Japanese with its pedestrian bridges, green bicycle paths, and business men.
These are little ways that Japan has remained present in the game, which is great considering how attitudes used to be.
Video games, anime, and manga have a long history of this where their Japanese aspects replaced or transformed into something thought to be more easily digested by North Americans.
There was a time when rice balls were referred to as doughnuts in shows like Pokemon when it was brought over. As a young Japanese-Canadian, I was pretty embarrassed by that at the time, but now things are much different.
Now doughnuts are known by their real name as onigiri (or at least as rice balls in Yo-Kai Watch), “ewww raw fish on rice” is heck yeah I’m up for some sushi, and people are exceptionally offended when something Japanese is stripped from a video game.
It reflects a change in attitude toward all things Japanese. Perhaps it’s a bit of Japan flexing its soft-cultural power muscles, but for someone who is Japanese in North America it’s great to see the cultural aspects visible.
There was a time when Japanese things weren’t acceptable or very misunderstood, but it seems like that time has passed.