A comprehensive criticism of the depiction of Japan in Ready Player One

[I suppose this post will spoil the plots related to the Japanese characters. But then again… Ready Player One has so few surprises that I doubt it matters…]

As a break from my MMO isekai anime binge, I thought I would jump back to my own culture to observe the state of American virtual reality fiction. However, I had one requirement: it had to be a book so that I could read it during summer break downtime in the teacher room. The obvious choice seemed to be Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, which had been riding high on media hype early this year following the release of a film adaptation directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. Two friends were already reading it, so I decided to pick it up and make a book club of it.

And o-ho boy, did I make a mistake. Ready Player One might be the worst book-for-pleasure I have ever read. I should have stuck to anime for my VR fix…

Since this site has become a de facto anime blog, I’ll skip a more general review and focus on Ready Player One’s shocking ignorance of Japanese culture and language. Plenty of other people have criticized the book but I have yet to come across a comprehensive breakdown of its awful depiction of Japan. So, while trying to stave off heat exhaustion in an unairconditioned Japanese middle school, I thought I would give it a shot.

To anyone unfamiliar with the work, Ready Player One follows Wade Watts (screen name: Parzival) as he explores the VR MMO “OASIS” in order to find an easter egg left by an eccentric billionaire game designer obsessed with 1980s nerd culture. The easter egg contains the designer’s multi-billion dollar inheritance and the developer keys to OASIS itself, meaning that millions of independent and corporate “gunters” (= easter egg hunters) promise to give Wade stiff competition. The book’s main protagonists form the “High Five,” a loosely associated group of the game’s top five gunters as they make a nauseating number of pop-culture references to solve the egg’s 1980’s themed puzzles.

The High Five includes two Japanese characters: Daito and Shoto. Daito and Shoto are older and younger brothers named for the large and small blades in a samurai’s daisho sword set.

Unfortunately, that is the end of any clever characterization of Daito and Shoto.

During the pair’s introduction, their only physical description is that they wore samurai gear and that “they looked Japanese,” as if each Asian country had some obvious phenotype to provide the reader with the necessary imagery (the book has a huge problem with “tell, don’t show”). Even worse, the two characters look almost identical, like “snapshots of the same young man taken five years apart,” bringing to mind the “all Asian people look alike” stereotype. The cross-race effect (by which people have difficulty distinguishing the faces of people of different races) is a nearly universal phenomenon, so I am not precisely faulting Cline here. But really, I am: as a writer, couldn’t he have tried just a little harder to describe his characters? I can summarize Cline’s character designs in just seven words: two Japanese samurai, one tall, one short. Even for side characters, that isn’t enough to get a good sense of them as people!

Both Daito and Shoto speak fluent English but always sound jilted and overly formal. To fit their samurai stereotype, the pair mention “honor” or “dishonor” in nearly every conversation. For example, they frequently complain about the “dishonorable” antagonist and, during their self-introductions, they say “Greetings . . . we are honored to meet all three of you!” while incessantly bowing and appending the honorific “-san” to everyone’s name. Even in a Japanese-language context it feels excessive: despite becoming age-peer “friends” with Wade, Daito and Shoto continue to bow and call him Parzival-san at every opportunity. But remember: they are speaking English. If Cline wanted his samurai to sound formal, “Mr. Parzival” should suffice. “-san” is needless exoticization.

The language nonsense goes well beyond awkward English and unnecessary honorifics. During the final sprint for the last gate, Shoto encourages Wade with the elaborate phrase “gokouun wo inorimasu” (here, I imagine Cline simply typed “good luck in japanese” into Google and clicked the first link he found) when a simple “ganbatte” makes much better colloquial sense. Not only that, the book’s Western audience familiar with samurai dramas and anime might recognize the word. In the same line, Shoto even says “Do your best,” a common translation of “ganbaru / ganbatte.” Why use such an obscure phrase like “gokouun wo inorimasu” when the obvious solution stares you in the face? Just say “ganbare!” Or why not use “good luck?” Again, Shoto is speaking English to English speakers.

Cline jumbles even more elementary Japanese. When giving thanks, Shoto almost always says “arigatou.” This would be fine if he only used it informally with his friends for some trifling assistance. But Cline ignores all context: Shoto says “Arigatou, Morrow-san” to Odgen Morrow after the elderly billionaire (a clear social superior) literally offers to save his life with a limo and a private jet. That at least deserves an polite “arigatou gozaimasu,” if not an even more formal expression like “kansha itashimasu.” In this situation, a simple “arigatou” comes off as oddly curt or even rude, like just saying “thanks” after someone gives you a million dollars. Of course, Shoto is not speaking Japanese and is fluent in English, so “Thank you” would be more appropriate, but again, Cline only ever describes his Japanese characters with lazy cliches.

The book also has a stupid penchant for adopting katakana-ized English loanwords from Japanese back into… English. It initially refers to Ultraman as Urutoraman, Spiderman as Supaidaman, and the game Black Dragon as Burakku Doragon. But why write an English loanword in a foreign sound system in a work written entirely in English? Katakana primarily exists as a pronunciation guide for foreign words imported into Japanese. However, because the book’s English-reading audience can presumably pronounce English, they have no need for a katakana pronunciation guide. No competent English writer would refer to a computer with the Russian “kompiyuter” or the Japanese “konpyuutaa” because computer is already an English word. Just use Ultraman, Spiderman, and Black Dragon!

The book also includes a number of bizarre “cultural confusion” moments that unnecessarily exoticize the Japanese characters. At one point, Wade implies that he taught Shoto how to high five (or here, low five I suppose?) with the line “then [I] stretched out my palm, a gesture [Shoto] recognized from the time we’d spent questing together. Grinning, he reached out and slipped me some skin.” The obvious objection here is that Japanese people know what high (and low) fives are (people call them “high touch.” Oh, Cline wants to use katakana? Sorry, haitacchi). The entire country has been inundated in American media for decades. It is oddly condescending to suggest that an American must teach an aloof Japanese person how to high five even though Shoto is an expert on 1980s American pop-culture.

In another baffling scene, Shoto walks past the furniture in Wade’s 1980s-style living room and sits on the floor in the exceedingly formal “seiza-style.” This is absurd. Unless Shoto was absolutely devoted to his samurai roleplay or some kind of quasi-fascist masochist like the young men of Yukio Mishima’s Tatenokai, he would absolutely not sit seiza in the casual living room of a supposed “friend.” Do Japanese people sit seiza-style? Yes. Do they casually sit seiza-style in their living rooms? No, that’s an oxymoron. Seiza is typically reserved for formal events like tea ceremony, temple visits, or funerals. Whenever I have sat seiza style in Japan, my hosts have told me to relax. And believe it or not, many Japanese households even have chairs and couches! Japanese people don’t always sit on the floor!

Most atrociously, Cline uses “seppuku” to refer to suicide in general. After the corporate antagonists cover up Daito’s murder as a suicide by throwing him from his forty-third floor apartment, Shoto says that “No, Daito did not commit seppuku.” Indeed, he did not commit seppuku! He did not disembowel himself with a very specific, ritualized motion before an observer cut off his head. Seppuku does not always even refer to suicide: in many cases, samurai were ordered to do so as a form of execution. Seppuku would never refer to falling out of a building. By having Shoto make that mistake, the book instantly sabotages any of his credibility as a character, especially given his apparent obsession with samurai.

On their own, I could give any of these cultural or language errors the benefit of the doubt (except for the seppuku issue…). Though the book is certainly casually racist, I won’t go so far as to accuse Ready Player One of malicious intent. But the persistence of errors just make both Cline and his editor come across as lazy. Did no one in the editing process ask why Cline had written all of the English-Japanese loan words in transliterated katakana in an absurd game of linguistic telephone? Did no one in the editing process have the common sense to realize that formal seiza-style sitting in a casual living room was odd? Did no one in the editing process think to verify the usage of the word seppuku with even a Google search?

More importantly to the narrative though, Cline could have put just a little more effort into his descriptions of his Japanese characters to make them stand out as something more than a couple of cardboard cut-out pop-culture samurai. Never once did the book convince me that Daito or Shoto represented real people. They were just awkward, tokenized diversity picks that Cline could use as a vehicle to shoe-horn in as many references to Japanese animation and film as possible.

I can think of an obvious defense of the characters: Daito and Shoto are hardcore role-players that idolize samurai and adopt as many of their mythologized customs as possible. A simple paragraph or two could explain that the pair act strange by even Japanese standards out of an unusually fervent commitment to their fantasies. Cline maybe comes close when he identifies the characters as otaku and hikikomori (the book’s only decent understanding of Japanese culture, surprise surprise), but he never makes the connection clear. Instead, the book elevates Daito and Shoto to the status of cultural paragons idolized by the whole of Japan with sponsorship deals, a television drama, and an original anime. In this context, the pair then come to represent all of Japan instead of themselves as individuals, no matter how hard they roleplay.

Ready Player One is all tell and no show: Daito and Shoto are otaku and samurai and Japanese and nothing else. The book never asks the critical question “why” to explore either of the characters in context. Why do they love samurai movies? Why did they become hikikomori? Why do they say arigatou and “-san” with close friends in English conversation?

To Cline, the answer is tautological: because they are Japanese.

It’s nothing but lazy stereotyping by a lazy writer in the laziest book I have ever read.

[Ready Player One could have even worked in a twist: Daito and Shoto could be revealed as weeaboos obsessed with Japan despite their ignorance of the culture in a commentary on the uninformed zealotry of some of the world’s laziest Japanophiles. Unfortunately, Cline seems to lack any self-awareness.]

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