Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why are arcades so damn popular in Japan? Americans have it easy is why.

[Note from Jake: as we expand the staff here at the blog, we add our first foreign-based writer. Let's call him our "Japan correspondent"--John Mason!]

Japan is an industrious nation. As a people, the Japanese work very hard. Much, much harder than any normal Westerner's schedule - it is not uncommon for a Japanese office worker, or salaryman, to leave his house at 7 am and not return home until midnight, every night - and it shows in their recreation. "Onsens," or public bathhouses, are one of the most popular recreations in Japan because it's a place designed for people to go and relax for a few hours away from home.

Come Hither! Kitty.
"Away from home" is the distinguishing qualifier here. A lot of Japanese adults spend so much time at work that they literally do not have time to do anything else after work except go home and go to sleep, maybe spending some time with their wives or children if they're still awake. Because of this relentless schedule, they simply never go out during the week.

So when the weekend rolls around - sometimes Saturday and Sunday, sometimes only Sunday - it's understandable that you wouldn't want to stay at home for yet another day. Given the choice of staying at home and firing up your PS3 or Wii or going out and blowing off steam at a bevy of exhilarating, fantastic, sometimes physically exhausting arcade machines, many people choose to get the hell out of the house and blow some of the Yen they worked so hard for during the week. I know I do.

I have a unique perspective on the Japanese work schedule as I work an afternoon schedule from after school to before bed teaching English to a mix of different ages of students. I don't work from 7 am to midnight, but I do work at the time of day when, were I still in America, I would normally meet friends for dinner or go shopping after work. And because I live in a small town, everything is closed down early, so I experience the same sort of cabin fever that all of these salarymen do, basically confined until the weekend due to various scheduling quirks and oddly-scheduled classes. After a few months of staying home with my special-edition Ni no Kuni golden PS3 incessantly replaying Dark Souls and Silent Hill and Final Fantasy VII, I could feel my mind start to go and my spirit threaten to escape out through my nose and earholes. I needed something else to do, but what?

I tried the restaurants (too expensive), I tried the museums (too illiterate), I tried the millions of things there are to do in Nagoya, Japan for a mid-20s gentleman like myself from shopping in the fabulous Osu district to exploring the city to dating 18-year-olds, but I was still searching for the experience that would satisfy my desire to find something that would keep me out of the house for an extended period of time, until one day I saw an exodus of Japanese men and their girlfriends coming out from under a bridge. It was a sea of people, hundreds of them, and my curiosity and I waded through them to discover from what dam this  wave had burst.

It was an Arashi concert--or some such other J-pop draw the teenage-to-lower-20s indulge in, who knows--but upon moving further away down the street, I came across an almost equally busy arcade, and I was thrilled. 

There are tons of arcades in Japan. You'll find one in every single Aeon mall (Aeon is essentially the Japanese equivalent of Sears or Macy's, to which a larger, more or less American-style mall is attached), which means in my immediate area alone there are at least four different fully-stocked arcades. This is not counting the immense number of Pachinko and slot casinos that litter the landscape - on any given main road, you'll run into a Pachinko place at right around one every mile or less - that are continuously patronized. I can't think of a single arcade still open in the Montgomery County, Maryland area where I grew up since the Dave & Buster's blew up. However, there are four within four miles of me here in Japan. 

Jubeat and Reflec Beat ¥100 of fun
Aeon mall arcades are small, though (every one I've ever been to, anyway). You'll find a few Street Fighter X Tekken cabinets, always in even numbers so players can fight against each other locally, a Taiko: Drum Master, some crane games (way more popular than you'd imagine, they're literally everywhere), a Pachinko machine or two, at least three or four photo booths, and a slot machine or two. Let me explain: when I say fully stocked, I mean there is generally at least a fighting game, a music game, etc., even if they're very small. Aeon arcades are also usually geared toward children.

I got strange looks after taking this picture.
The arcade I found down the street from the concert hall was an adult arcade (no porn, though it isn't unusual to see a pair of tits - not pictured - on the wall every now and then). Music games *everywhere*: DDR, dual Guitar Freaks setups, Taiko Drums, gigantic Drum Mania decks, touch-screen music games with recent J-pop selections (and, to my great joy, Daft Punk), and more I can't even remember right now. Amazing Mobile Suit Gundam virtual pods that you step into and are surrounded by a miniature IMAX screen as you fight against other mobile suits. Virtua Fighter 5, Tekken Tag 2, Persona 4 Arena, Street FighterDarkstalkers, Dragon Ball Z in a three-screen setup for some reason, quiz games, sports games, war strategy card games, Mahjong, virtual poker, crane games, dart boards, and some 25-30 photo booths line the walls and fill the center of the warehouse-sized room of fun.

Not a great pic, but card-based arcade games require commitment.
It's been posited before that the main success of the Japanese arcade is that it relies on the one-coin premise--more specifically, the hyaku-en coin (¥100). I think this is partially true. It is very easy to play most of the games by just having a coin handy and ready to pop in. The problem is that it's really quite expensive. ¥100 is equivalent to about $1.30 or .40, and you'll usually end up playing more than only one coin at a time. You could easily walk into an arcade and need to hit an ATM before you leave, depending that you have yourself a good ol' time. The other problem is that many of the games are much more expensive than ¥100--I wonder if this is a more recent development due to the economic downturn Japan had a few years ago from which it is currently recovered. That Mobile Suit Gundam game? About $8 for two plays. Only two of the music games I played were actually a single coin, assuming that you don't fail before the third song. And let me tell you a thing or two about growing up playing Street Fighter on a SNES controller: those skills don't translate to an arcade stick, and Japanese players are fuckin' merciless... so I spent quite a lot of money at a particular SF X Tekken cabinet one fine autumn afternoon.

Not pictured: one of the 30 photo booths these girls came out of.
The first time, I went alone and noticed I was one of the only solitary guys there. Groups of friends would typically play the same games together and laugh and talk the whole time. Video games can sometimes be thought of as an antisocial experience, but the Japanese arcade is absolutely a social gathering. I was lonely that first time. The second time, I took a friend, a cute girl, who had never played an arcade game in her life, and she had a great time. And she wants to go again! Let me end this with a touch of advice; take girls to arcades, guys - they have fun.

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