Japan struggles with violent games

Lack of ratings frustrates some creators

USA Today
11 Nov 2000
By Steven Kent, Special for USA Today

OSAKA, Japan -- Video game creator Keiji Inafune is not nearly as well-known as his characters. For more than a decade, Inafune has designed the cartoon-cute Mega Man games, which first appeared on the original Nintendo in 1988. Inafune's most recent project, however, takes him in a more mature direction.

He is finishing Onimusha: Warlords, whose cutting-edge graphics and brutal action have made it one of the most anticipated games for Sony's PlayStation 2 system. In the game, due out next year, players control a samurai as he battles a supernatural army. Inspired by the works of Japanese film legend Akira Kurosawa, Onimusha is so cinematic that Inafune's employers at Capcom have hired a motion picture director to help oversee the project.

Unlike his Mega Man games, which were created for audiences of all ages, Onimusha is clearly designed for a mature audience. Built using the same core software as Capcom's enormously popular and exceedingly gory Resident Evil games, Onimusha contains graphic scenes of carnage. ''Living or dead, whatever you attack pours out blood,'' he says. ''Bleeding is a natural thing.''

That puts Inafune in a quandary. ''When I create family games like Mega Man, I concentrate on making a game that is suitable and fun for kids of the targeted age. When I create adult-only games, my target is to make a game enjoyable for adults. There is a line between these two games that I never cross.''

But Japan, unlike the USA, does not have a ratings system for games. Inafune may not like children playing Onimusha, but he has no way to warn them or their parents. ''There are no guidelines,'' Inafune says. In the past, that was never a problem in Japan, a culture known for its lack of violent crime. But the country has seen a rise in teen violence over the past few years -- sparking the same kind of media examination as in the USA. ''A lot of teenagers are doing really horrible things,'' Inafune says. ''Violence has become a big issue in Japan recently.''

Among incidents:

  1. A ''well-behaved'' 15-year-old stabbed a neighboring family of six, three fatally, in August after being accused of being a Peeping Tom.
  2. On May 3, a 17-year-old boy hijacked a bus in southwestern Japan, fatally stabbed a 68-year-old woman with a 16-inch knife and injured five others.
  3. Also in May, a 17-year-old student was charged with fatally stabbing a 65-year-old woman, reportedly telling police, ''I wanted to experience killing someone.''

In the past few years, even as the number of crimes by juveniles has dropped, violent crimes have jumped -- in the first half of this year, the number of murders by juveniles increased to 53 from 27 in 1999, the National Police Agency reported. As in the USA, all facets of the culture are under examination by politicians and psychologists alike. Some point to an aimlessness among youths; others look to the education system for failures. And some target video games.

''I think the younger generation lacks the basic ethical sense of the importance of life and of the difference between good and bad,'' former chief Cabinet secretary Kanezo Muraoka told Reuters in a 1998 interview, soon after a 14-year-old boy cut off and mutilated the head of an 11-year-old in Kobe.

In response to the trend, the Japanese video game industry several years ago created a trade organization called the Computer Entertainment Software Association (CESA). Similar in concept to the U.S. Interactive Digital Software Association, CESA provides leadership in the industry and represents it to the government.

CESA has both permanent staff and appointed executives from within the game industry, who serve one-year terms. Yoichi Haraguchi, director of the consumer sales department at Namco, was chairman of CESA's committee on morality last year.

''CESA has its own controlling system on issues such as violence and sexual expression,'' Haraguchi says. He says CESA may one day create a ratings system similar to the one in the USA.

In the meantime, before Onimusha and other games are published in Japan, they must be approved by CESA. But CESA has no written code and no guidelines for warning labels on games.

Complicating matters is the fact that adult content often is published here in formats Americans generally consider the domain of the young. Besides children's cartoons, Japan has mature animé cartoons that include graphic depictions of sex and violence. So do Manga comics, particularly popular among Japanese men.

Like Inafune, a growing number of Japanese game designers work hard to maintain a well-defined line between products for all audiences and those for adults.

''I hate guns,'' says Sega's Tetsuya Mizaguchi, father of boys ages 7 and 3 and designer of Space Channel 5, a game in which a sexy news anchor frees a space station from alien occupation by dancing with the little invaders. ''The desire to destroy is very deep in human nature. It's sad. Shooting guns in games is not fantasy, it's real, so I promised never to make gun games.''

Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, says video games are not a significant cause of rising violence in Japan. ''There are sweeping sociological and economical changes that have afflicted Japan over three or four years -- vast unemployment, economic dislocation, pressures within the traditional family unit.

''Anybody who wants to take isolated tragedies and exploit them is, in my view, irresponsible and looking to demonize a particular industry.''