Plus Alpha: Everything I ever knew about Japan was wrong

Turns out videogames don't prepare you for life in Yokohama

Plus Alpha is a weekly column that explores life in Japan from the perspective of American expatriate and game-industry veteran Jarik Sikat. Having worked in numerous areas of the game industry since 1994, Sikat relocated to Japan in 2010.

OK. I’m going to admit it. There’s a little secret I’m going to share. But let’s just keep this between you and me, and the rest of the Internet. OK. Here goes: Everything I knew about Japan was wrong. Yeah, there… I said it.

To be quite honest, you’re not the first one to hear this. A few months ago Gary Steinman, GamesRadar’s editor in chief, sent me an e-mail asking if I was interested in writing about Japan. Before agreeing to write this column, I made the very same confession to Gary. “Are you sure you want me to write a column about Japan for you?” I initially asked, because, well …

My story isn’t that much different from other expats who’ve relocated to Japan, but hear me out anyway.

Having worked in the games industry for just over 12 years, I’ve spent most of my career with Japanese game companies. I was fortunate enough to visit Japan twice a year. This was back when Tokyo Game Show was held during both the spring and autumn. Along with my Tokyo-based colleagues, we’d meet with local developers and evaluate their titles for possible release in North America. It was a great way to see Japan in a way one typically wouldn’t see as a tourist.

I read manga, watched countless hours of anime (subbed, not dubbed!) and Japanese movies, subscribed to various Japanese magazines, read numerous (Ninja) books, tried and failed numerous times to learn how to speak the language, listened to J-pop, and went through a whole Visual kei phase, just to cite a few examples.

For heaven’s sake, back when Japan’s first crane-game boom hit, I was a game counselor for a company that had a legitimate (but thankfully never realized) plan on the books to build an arcade machine where the object of the game was to catch and win "flying panties." Yes. Real panties. All things considered, I thought I had at least some grasp of what I was getting into before moving here.

During one of my last days of work in the U.S., I was cautioned by a co-worker who himself had recently repatriated to the United States with his family after over fifteen-odd years of doing videogame localization in Japan. If anyone would know, it would be him. Shaking his finger, he said, "It’s one thing to visit, but it’s a completely different thing to live there."

"I absolutely get what you’re talking about," I sincerely nodded. You could have cut my hubris with a knife.

Now, we won’t get into specifics (at least not yet, because it’s just too embarrassing and they’re far too painful to relive), but after about a little over a year and a half of living in Yokohama, I eventually came to the realization that everything I knew or believed about Japan was just… just plain wrong! I swore to myself I would never tell a soul.

One week later, Gary sends me an email.

With that out of the way, it’s safe to say that, with the exception of what my day-to-day life here is like, I won’t profess to know or understand much about Japan. This column won’t be about that particular journey, as that’s been well-documented by far more capable writers. Instead, I'll try to offer a peek at what it's like to live here, from the unique perspective of a (recently humbled) US expat gaming-industry veteran.

In Japan, the phrase Plus Alpha is used to describe a bonus, “something extra” or “above and beyond.” As in, "here’s your share of the profit, plus alpha." What we plan to do here in Plus Alpha are some fun things that – although they don’t involve catching “flying panties” – are for the most part things we can do (and get away with) in Japan and nowhere else. So I’m pretty sure Ninjas will be involved, too.

Jarik Sikat has worked in the videogame industry in areas ranging from localization and product development to public relations and marketing. As a freelance journalist and writer, his work has appeared in PlayStation: The Official Magazine, Official Xbox Magazine and Newtype USA.

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