Japanese Gaming Does Not Speak The Same Lingo

While to outsiders Japan appears a homogeneous nation (with only 2 per cent of the population being registered foreigners), there are actually key regional differences in the way people behave and the language is spoken. The country's video game developers are no exception.

It's easy to divide the country into East and West Japan - or simply Tokyo and Osaka. For years, it was an easy way to divide the country's video games, too. Sony and companies like Square Enix were viewed as typically Tokyo-style enterprises, while Capcom and SNK were viewed as typically Osaka studios in flavor and style. Then, there's Nintendo, which is an entity in itself.

The differences between Tokyo and Osaka are not only historical, but cultural and linguistic. In Japan, the stereotype is that people in Tokyo are more reserved, while people in Osaka are bawdy and friendly. Many of the country's most famous comedians are from Osaka. Historically, Tokyo is newer than its Kansai neighbours and wasn't the official capital until the 19th century, though it was the defacto capital as early as the 17th century. It's considered the city of the samurai, while Osaka is a city of merchants. The Japanese spoken in both Tokyo and Osaka is slightly different. The pronunciation is different, while verb endings and words differ. In many ways, it is similar to how varied the English language is across the United Kingdom.

But then there's Kyoto. The ancient city wasn't the capital until the imperial court was moved from nearby Nara in the 8th century. The landmarks, temples and shrines in Kyoto are national treasures. And the city, much like many traditional urban centres in Europe, feels as if it bears the entire nation's history.

Even though it's only a little over a half an hour from Osaka, Kyoto could not be more different. There are more women wearing traditional kimonos - heck, the city still has geishas. And while Tokyo and Osaka were firebombed and flattened during World War II, resulting in radical Post-War reconstructions, Kyoto remained in tact. For that, the city is special.

No wonder Kyoto people, not generally known to be welcoming to outsiders, are quick to point out that they do not speak "Osaka-ben" (the Osaka dialect), but rather, Kyokotoba. The reason for this is that Kyoto people do not want to be lumped in with Osaka people. There are slight differences between the Osaka and Kyoto dialects, but they are closer than, say, the Tokyo and the Osaka dialects. While some words are different, some are the same, such as "nambo" (なんぼ), which means "how much", or "ookini" (おおきに), which usually means "thank you". The difference between the Osaka dialect and the Kyoto dialect is pronunciation - though, some Japanese claim that the difference is so small, it's hard to detect.

Against this traditional and even insular backdrop, Nintendo rose from the streets of Kyoto and became an international brand. Yet, the company isn't simply a traditional Japanese company, it feels like a traditional Kyoto company. While Nintendo does have offices in Tokyo, the headquarters continues to be based in Kyoto. And Nintendo typically doesn't come to game developers located throughout the country, those developers go to Kyoto. A quick look around the Nintendo headquarters turns up zero signs of gaming. The white marble lobby has classy art on the walls, and it looks like it could be anything but a gaming company.

Nintendo has very traditional Kyoto roots, and many of the employees who made it famous for video games, like Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi, are Kyoto born and bred. Yet, as the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii proved, there is nothing traditional about it's gaming innovations. Kyokotoba might be spoken only in Kyoto, but Nintendo speaks the international lingo of gaming.

Culture Smash is a daily dose of things topical, interesting and sometimes even awesome — game related and beyond.


    Excellent, spot-on piece. Makes me want to go back to Japan!

    This piece brings back a bit of nostalgia. I didn't spend much time in Osaka but it was enough to notice how different it was to Kyoto. It did always surprise me considering how close the two are to each other.

    Thanks Brian. I visited Japan back in August and it is interesting to read about this. I even asked about dropping into the headquarters but they said they don't accept visitors...

    Great piece. Really liking Brian's articles on Japan.

    Kyoto and Osaka really is the most fundamental rivalry, and Tokyo is the later upstart. As you say, the actual dialect is pretty much identical. The difference really is mostly in that Kyoto people will use a more polite, upper-crust/snobbish kind of spoken Japanese while Osaka people (especially south Osaka) will be down-to-earth/vulgar and be far more plain-spoken. And, in my experience, far more fun.

    A running joke in Osaka is that the worst marriage possible is between a Kyoto girl and a Tokyo boy as it combines the worst of both cities, both snobbiness and humourless career-climbing.

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