Written by Björn-Ole Kamm

Translating J-RPGs

Presentation: Brokers of “Japaneseness:” Bringing table-top J-RPGs to the “West.” Mutual Images Workshop, Kobe, June 12-13, 2015.

The Mutual Images international workshop was created in 2013. It saw its first edition held in June 2013 at Kōnan University (Kobe, Japan) and its founders have later created a Cultural association, to organize the workshop’s yearly editions, further activities and an academic journal. The second edition was hosted in May 2014 at Tours University (Tours, France).

The philosophy from which the Mutual Images workshop series was born is that of exploring the reciprocal influences between Japan and Europe, with an emphasis on the visual cultures. The scope and aims of the symposiums and the journal are to explore, describe and as much as possible explain the several aspects and features of worlds that not only look at each other directly but also watch their own image reflected on the eyes of the other.

The 2015 workshop will be held at Kobe University from June 12-13. Please visit the workshop website for a detailed programme.

Brokers of “Japaneseness:” Bringing table-top J-RPGs to the “West”

Japanese-language table-top role-playing games (TRPG) stayed mostly under the radar of (Western) gamers and scholars until 2008, when Maid RPG (Kamiya, Cluney) was released as the first English translation of such a game. TRPGs made by Japanese game designers had been overshadowed by their digital cousins, computer RPGs such as Final Fantasy, and Japan imagined as a digital game heaven. Instead of engaging a computer interface, players come together and narrate a shared adventure or story via character avatars and with the help of dice and often complex rules. The game world and the plot of their play exist mostly in their imagination, supported in some cases by elaborate character sheets, drawings, maps, and figurines.
Maid RPG had been an amateur-made game and remained a PDF-only in release in its English version. The first major translation was Tenra Bansho Zero (Inoue, Kitkowski) in 2014, chosen for its “Japaneseness,” that is, a plethora of elements, such as samurai, Shinto priests, and creatures from Japanese folklore set in a sengoku (Warring States) inspired world. However, it was not faithfully translated: “unfaithful” is not meant in any morally negative sense but refers to the many adjustments necessary to “sell” Tenra to an audience that was perceived as different from the “original” Japanese one and that (in part) perceives itself as different from it. Such adjustments included not only notes and explanations of “Japan” but also self-censorship vis-a-vis “Western” values. This paper traces how “cultural brokerage” does not simply translate between cultures but necessarily also produces them as a reality. It makes “the West” — by stripping away elements, adding information — and similarly also “Japan.” The paper shows that the “Japaneseness” of Tenra was its selling point but had to be made first through telling the audience what “authentic” Japan looks like.

Keywords: cultural brokerage, Japaneseness, J-RPG, mediation, nihonjinron, table-top role-playing games, translation, TRPG

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