The World’s Only True Meritocracy
The arcade is a place where respect comes with skill. It doesn’t matter whether you are black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, man or woman. All that matters is whether you’re good on the machines. “Put your quarter up” is the same as slapping someone in the face with a glove for a duel. When it’s your turn at the machine, you and your opponent are prepared to risk your pride, reputation, and money to prove one thing: which of you is the better player? Win, and you stay on the machine, gaining another victory for your mental scorecard and securing more playtime from your quarter. Lose, and you had to walk to the back of the line in shame, stewing over your defeat and formulating a new strategy as you await your chance to plunk another quarter into the coin slot.
In the 1980s and 1990s, this was the classic arcade narrative that every arcade aficionados could call their own. In the present, the word “arcade” no longer exists in our daily lexicon. The word is a relic of an age long past just like audio cassettes, Betamax, and floppy discs. These days, if you hear the word at all, it’s in reference to places like Chuck E. Cheese’s or Dave & Buster’s. During our parents’ generation, society saw arcades as Han Solo saw Mos Eisley: a hive of scum and villainy frequented by ruffians, delinquents, and all manner of riff-raff. It’s not hard to see why society said “Good riddance!” when arcades started to die one after another in America.
While arcades died in America, they continue to thrive in East Asia. In Japan, arcades are a sustaining industry where arcade game manufacturers such as Taito see nearly 100 billion yearly. But what’s Japan doing different from America that allows their arcades to succeed? Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with the business model. Japanese arcades have stayed true to the 100 yen per play ever since the 1970s. The arcade scene still exists today because it’s necessary for them to exist. For the Japanese, the arcade is a social space that simply cannot be recreated by any other means. Arcades are the last truly meritocratic space left in Japan, and perhaps in the whole world.
A Social Haven
For many customers, the arcade is one of the few places they can really let loose. Arcade regulars often say that at home or in an apartment complex, it’s difficult to invite people to play games or have a party without getting complaints about the noise. In the high-volume arcade environment, customers are encouraged and yes, almost forced to raise their voices to communicate with one another. It may sound like it causes problems, but an arcade event manager who goes by Gama no Abura finds that the loud atmosphere affects customers positively, raising the excitement for everyone and contributing to a good time.
In fact, this high-energy arcade environment is where many regulars forge their deepest friendships. Known as “gemusentomo” or “arcade friends,” these people not only share common gaming interests, but compete against themselves, motivating one another to improve their scores in space ship shooting games or perfect their technique in a fighting game. Sometimes, the bonds grow beyond friendship. Gama no Abura actually met his current wife after spending years together playing at the arcades. One of the most skilled fighting game players, Momochi Yusuke, met his longtime girlfriend, Kusachi “ChocoBlanka” Yuko, at the arcade where she worked.
The bonds these dedicated players form rivals the team dynamics of any school sports club or town hobby league. Fighting game players especially love to partake in inter-regional competitions in much the same way as any big sports leagues. They become not just host and guests, but home and away teams. They come to the arcade to duke it out and see which region was the best Beyond proving one’s own skill, players fought to represent their region’s strength, and more importantly to bring glory and reputation to their arcade. At the end of the day, these tense matches and heated rivalries don’t stop these players from going to a bar after a tournament to drink together in celebration of a shared hobby.
A Place Which Accepts Everyone
Some people in the west associate Japan with hyper-conservative political leanings and a rigid, normative society. It may come as a surprise then that arcades bring together incredibly diverse demographics. Much like the arcades in America, Japan’s arcades do not discriminate against any of its customers. Native or foreigner, rich or poor, young or old, it doesn’t matter as long as you have some 100 yen coins and a desire to play. While arcades see the most traffic through teens and young adults, a considerable amount of arcade regulars are in their mid-30s and 40s. These individuals see the arcade as a place of rest after a hard day at work, taking advantage of their close proximity to train stations for a few hours of entertainment.
These days, as the average age of Japan rises, arcades are seeing more foot traffic from the elderly. As with every industry in Japan, arcades are seeking the patronage of the older demographic and try to find ways to entice them. In most cases, elderly men and women such as Shiba Noboru come to arcades to enjoy horse race simulation games or medal games. However, there are some interesting elders such as Mr. and Mrs. Akiyuki, a married couple aged 75 and 71 respectively who are regulars at a Shizuoka arcade. Their game of choice? Dance Dance Revolution. Rather than try and force them off the machine, younger players wish to challenge the Akiyukis and compete for high scores. The Akiyukis take pride in their ability and practice with a home version of DDR to maintain both their health and their skills.
However, it is the arcade fighting games fanbase that truly push the normative boundaries of Japan. The games themselves have a rich history, including characters that, while problematic, still acknowledge demographics that the rest of society marginalizes. Capcom’s Street Fighter II was the first fighting game to allow players to pick a female character by introducing the famous Chun-Li. Arc System Works’ Guilty Gear franchise was the first fighting game to feature an openly homosexual person of color through the character named Venom. In the real world, players such as the aforementioned ChocoBlanka are members of a still rare, but increasingly numerous population of female players. And there are players such as Sato “Kayo Police” Kayo and the American Ricky Ortiz who are openly transgender individuals who grew up playing and loving fighting games. While individuals like Ricky or Kayo may turn some heads when they enter the arcades, once they jump on the machine and rack up a winning streak, nobody looks at their gender or sexuality anymore. They care about their skill.
Are the Arcades Dying?
Despite their continued popularity, Japan’s arcade industry is experiencing a variety of difficulties. Between an ongoing recession, rationing of power due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and stiff competition from the home video game industry, arcades are struggling to attract new audiences. For Ishikawa Kiyoshi, corporate manager of Taito, one of the largest arcade game manufacturers, it’s a matter of creating new experiences you simply cannot experience anywhere else. Okano Tezu, former Sega employee, believes that home console hardware such as Nintendo’s Wii have started to turn Japanese thoughts back towards home gaming, a shift in the video game industry that arguably killed arcades in America.
However, former Sega music composer Kawaguchi Hiro has a different idea. To Kawaguchi, there are numerous facets of Japanese popular culture that have gained traction in the west such as manga and anime. But he notes that despite the uniqueness of it, the Japanese arcade culture hasn’t migrated westward in the same fashion. Kawaguchi believes that this arcade sub-culture is “a rich experience that shouldn’t lose to anime or other Japanese sub-cultures.” Perhaps he’s right. The declining success of Japanese arcades may have to do with its inability to exist anywhere but Japan. As we look to the future in an attempt to stimulate the declining arcade industry, perhaps we need to look outward to a solution. It could well be that the future survival of arcades in Japan hinges on a second arcade wave across the globe.
1) How do arcades as a social space differ from social spaces you’re familiar with? How are they the same?
2) What are some possible reasons that the Japanese arcade culture seems more socially accepting than society at large?
3) Kawaguchi believes that the arcade sub-culture in Japan is at least on par with anime and manga. Could the reason Japan’s arcade culture continues to exist only in Japan be related to Iwabuchi’s idea of cultural odor and global markets?
4) It’s been said that the Japanese borrowed the idea of an amusement arcade from America. The Taito corporation started in the 1950s as a shipping company that brought many arcade games from America to Japan. How might this information tie together Japanese arcades with Azuma and his observations of the unique historic and cultural relationships between Japan and America?
100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience. 2013. DVD. (Note: Available through Amazon Instant Video, Apple iTunes Store, and on Hulu Plus)
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