Tag Archives: Japan

The Japanese Game Industry: Floundering Headfirst

About to graduate. Uh oh!

So let’s continue the story: I was about to graduate from a university in Tokyo, and I thought I had everything nailed down for the future. I had been doing some part-time freelance translation / voice casting for a small company, and it looked like I’d be able to get a work visa through them. Long story short: they flaked out on me with 2 weeks until my student visa expired.

At this point, I was in a panic. I had no leads for future employment, my tiny dorm room was packed full of stuff that I had to get rid of, and I had to exit the country in 14 days.

After a brief freakout I pulled myself together and surveyed my dorm room. First thing to get rid of: The TV. It costs money to dispose of pretty much anything in Japan, so it’s best to hand off stuff to your friends as opposed to pay $40 for the government to take it. I called up my friend Hiroshi, who worked at a small game company for whom I’d done some English checking and playtesting.

He picked up on the first ring. I told him that I had to get out of Japan and asked him if he wanted my TV.

Hiroshi: “Wait, why are you leaving Japan?”

Me: “The guy I was working for wouldn’t sponsor my work visa. I’ve gotta get out of here in 2 weeks.”


Hiroshi: “You need to come to our office right now. We can hire you.”

(Another pause as my head exploded)

Me: “Hire me to do WHAT?”

(Thoughtful pause)

Hiroshi: “I dunno, teach us English or something. Just come here, okay?”

I threw on my backpack and hauled ass out the door, breaking several land-speed records sprinting to the train station. My stomach twisted in non-euclidean ways as I tried figuring out whether or not Hiroshi was serious or not, and how this had the potential to let me remain in Japan and get my first Japanese game industry job, despite a clear lack of experience. I started brainstorming whatever useful abilities I had, along with how I could pitch myself in the most important job interview in my life, which was about to happen in 45 minutes.

My first studio! My fate waited for me on the second floor.

It turned out that I shouldn’t have worried. The company had been looking for an English speaker, as there weren’t any native speakers on staff for quick communication with the American publisher. I had a quick chat with the company president, we figured out the legal steps we’d need to take in order to procure a working visa, and I was hired on the spot as a planner. (The “planner” position is a weird one, and a predominantly Japanese concept. Planners do pretty much anything regarding to game design — writing documents, designing levels, and anything that doesn’t involve programming the game or working in Maya.)

I showed up the next day, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I’d be working with about 15 other guys — no outsourcing here! — on an Xbox launch game that was based on a . I had my very own desk (made out of plastic) and a folding chair, and was seated next to the director, Hiroshi. I had my own PC running Windows NT, a copy of Visio for creating visual design documents, and a copy of Softimage. (No, not XSI — the clunky one with the super-obtuse interface.) This was my first full-time game industry job, and I was ready to prove myself. Would I succeed or go face-first into the dirt? More on that later! And don’t look at my resume…that’s cheating.

Student Life at Temple University Japan

In my last post, I talked about the awesome experience I had at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, and what a fantastic foreign exchange program they had. Midway through the second semester, I realized that Japan was a happening place to be — I was getting plenty of work writing for IGN Dreamcast and C|Net’s Gamecenter (remember, this is back in 1999-2000 right before the Internet bubble exploded). After a year of dynamite fun in Japan, returning to rural Pennsylvania for another year to finish my college degree seemed, well, pretty crappy. My question was: How can I extend my stay here?

The answer lies within! Note the PaRappa the Rapper keychain attached to my bag.

A few months before the end of the second semester at Kansai Gaidai, I figured it all out: I would transfer my credits from Indiana University of Pennsylvania to Temple University Japan, which had a Tokyo branch. I got in contact with the school, which was incredibly friendly and accommodating–during my trip to Tokyo Game Show I took a day to visit the campus, where we sat down and laid out a road map that would let me graduate in 3 semesters, while changing my major from Communications Media to Asian Studies to speed things up.

Things got rolling quickly. I got all of the college paperwork ready, prepared to change my visa from Student to Cultural Studies (Temple isn’t an official Japanese school because of squirrely government nonsense) and started packing for Tokyo. Temple had a dorm in Tokyo, so I had everything shipped there ahead of time. After the final Kansai Gaidai graduation ceremony, I bade my tearful goodbyes, then got the bullet train to Tokyo the very next day so I could make the start of the summer session. I’d be taking five intensive-study classes during the short summer semester, so there wouldn’t be much time for anything else, much less exploring Tokyo! Worse yet, I knew a total of one person in Tokyo, my friend Alissa Takaya (who was working 24-hour crunch sessions — including weekends! — at a small developer called Anchor Inc.).

(Side note: At the time I attended, Temple University Japan was not an accredited Japanese school, meaning you coudln’t get an official Student visa, nor could you apply for the student discount when purchasing your commuter pass. I was told that no foreign schools were accredited because if they approved of an American school, then they’d have to approve of all the Korean schools too. Some Tokyo people will speak ill of Temple grads because of this lack of Japanese recognition, but they can stuff it.)

Temple University, which is basically a converted office building in Minami-Azabu, doesn’t have any on-campus housing, so students stayed in one of several “inexpensive” ($700 a month) dorms a 40-minute train ride away (not at all terrible). My dorm was located in Toda-shi, which is in Saitama, north of Tokyo — my actual train stop was Nishi-kawaguchi, which has a reputation as the Tokyo area’s biggest red-light district! In all honesty, though, a few blocks away from the station the hostess clubs and “soaplands” gave way to beautiful parks and lovely rural surroundings, so I was never one to complain.

Kyoritsu Dormy (sic) Nishikawaguchi 2. Ever-so-tiny rooms, but at least they had a sink.

The dorm room was tiny — 122 square feet — and the showers were shared, but there was a sink in each room, which made things more bearable. There was also a gigantic bathtub — maybe you could fit 10 people in it — that was always empty when I’d roll down to the public bath area at 9AM. There was also an air conditioner in each room, which was greatly appreciated — though the dorm manager always questioned the astronomical electricity bill I’d have every month (multiple PCs, game consoles, and the air conditioner running full blast).

The majority of the people in the dorm were students or workers from out of town. (I can’t imagine leaving your family behind to live in a tiny room five days a week, but that’s just me.) This dorm was guys-only and was relatively quiet. The manager and his wife, who lived downstairs, cooked breakfast and dinner daily, which was more than filling enough for a poor student.

Each morning, I’d grab my free breakfast, unfold my Razor kickboard — I assure you, these were all the rage back in 2000 and could shave twenty minutes off my commute — and head off to class.

TUJ professor Jeff Kingston, Ph.D., an all-around great guy. You’ve probably seen him on CNN or NBC commenting on Japanese stuff. Here he’s making fun of one of my boneheaded theories on the whiteboard: “Williamson Thesis: 1.) Masochistic impulses of Koreans who sought to become even more imposed on culturally, etc. 2.) Effective brainwashing deceived by Japanese duplicity.”

Temple was great. The staff were all Asian Studies specialists, and I took some amazing courses in Japanese history and Chinese poetry (!), taught by people who were passionate about their stuff. Also indescribably fantastic were the film courses, taught by none other than Donald Richie himself; he would roll in, we’d watch an Ozu movie, and then he’d go into exquisite detail about the films…many of which he was on the set of. He was 77 years young when he taught my class, and sharp as a tack. I am certain he has many, many years left — I remember randomly running into him hanging out in Shibuya. What a guy.

Field trip to Oshima Island, home of GOJIRA!!!

The TUJ student body was diverse. Some students were there on a one-semester visit from other schools, while others were bilingual Japanese kids; many of them had grown up attending international schools. The actual graduating class was very small. I am amazed by anyone who goes for a challenging college degree in a language other than their native tongue. The only bummer was that I couldn’t keep taking Japanese language classes, as I had to hit the required courses in order for me to graduate on time in three semesters.

Can you spot Colin?

Though my schedule was filled with classes, I managed to start exploring Tokyo and making some lifelong friends. And after three genuinely awesome semesters, it was graduation time. We put on our robes — a  ceremonial garb which baffled a lot of the Japanese students — and had the ceremony in a Japanese hotel’s ballroom. I received my diploma, and stepped through the door into unemployment, and the realization that my visa was about to expire in a week with no future plans. More on that next!

Student Life at Kansai Gaidai

Studying at Kansai Gaidai University was flat-out awesome. The coursework was challenging, but the teachers gave you enough slack to take some time off and enjoy the wonders of foreign exchange. They hooked me up with a great, loving homestay family and a good conversation partner to meet with a few times a week. The non-Japanese language courses were also varied and insightful — I especially remember the classes on Gender Roles in Modern Japan (Hester), Death in East Asian Society (Kenney), and the film class where we blasted through tons of Kurosawa movies in the university theatre.

Kansai Gaidai Library, circa 1999

The library was also a majestic building full of great research materials. The only weird thing was that you had to run your university ID through a special reader and then wiggle your way through a turnstile. Maybe it was to keep out the homeless people. Of which there were none.

Sakedojo, the dojo of death and drinking

There was great food, too! Foreigner-friendly delicacies like hamburg steak and curry rice were plentiful and cheap at the cafeteria, and the popular hangout was a place called Sakedojo, where you could get plastered for cheap with other foreign students in an eating environment that hadn’t passed health inspections since 1923. While everything was covered in a horrifying layer of dirt and grime, the chicken katsu with the top secret “dojo sauce” always tasted awesome, and the girl waitresses were lovely beyond belief.

Gaidai’s crack ballroom dancing team. Yes!!!

One thing you might want to be careful about is clubs and activities. Some Japanese university clubs have lunatic schedules, meeting once or twice every day, including weekends. While this is great if you want to become some kind of kenpo monster, you might want to do what I did and take a club that only meets twice a week. My friend Evil Colin took shodo (Japanese calligraphy) and I went for Judo at first but then switched to Ballroom Dancing for obvious reasons.

Den-Den Town, the happiest place on earth
Den-Den Town, the happiest place on earth

After class we’d hop on the train and head to Osaka to places like Den-Den Town, which was a veritable smorgasbord of used games, CDs, and various geek stuff that kept us shopping until the shops closed down at 7pm. (I still believe that Den-Den is ten times better than Akihabara.)

One side effect of being in Japan and living with a host family: I was no longer fat. I entered Japan at roughly 230 pounds, and after a few months I realized that none of my clothes fit. The combination of eating healthy home-cooked food, walking to school every day, and not putting crap like Taco Bell in my body had turned me skinny. I could actually run kind of fast. And I could do a pull-up!!! Wonder of wonders.

The infamous Professor Yamashita. Known for “borrowing” food from students during lunch hour.

After a few months of this pure concentrated awesome experience, I started thinking “HMM, I really should think about spending another semester here.” All of my friends shared my sentiment, and we all applied for a second semester so we could spend a full year abroad. The paperwork was easy-peasy and we all headed back home for Christmas, or stuck around Osaka for the holiday season (my friend Jason has some amazing stories about this one-month vacation). I was in full Japanophile mode, I was missing my Japanese girlfriend, and if I remember correctly was pretty unpleasant and down on America. I thank my parents for being so patient with me that holiday season.

So I headed back for another round of Kansai Gaidai fun. The second semester was even better than the first, since we knew the ropes really well and had established incredibly strong friendships. As the semester came to a close, we realized that this amazing part of our lives was going to wrap and we’d all be going back to the United States.

Graduation for Osaka Kansai Gaidai Crew 2000. Sayuri Matsuura, Emily Jensen, Colin Williamson, Jason Fetters, Colin Wahlert, Trevor Lalish-Menagh

…or would we!?

To be continued…

Studying Abroad & Kansai Gaidai

I’m not exactly sure why I decided to go to Japan. The fact that I was a huge game nerd probably had more than a little to do with it. I was going to Indiana University of Pennsylvania for a Communications major and no real direction. At the same time I was managing to write full-time for PC Gamer magazine; Communications classes are embarrassingly lax, after all.

Anyhoo, the main reason I went to IUP was its outstanding study-abroad program — they had links to tons of overseas schools, so I was deadset on going to Kansai Gaidai in Osaka, Japan. I took about 4 semesters’ worth of Japanese in advance to prepare, and for the first semester in my senior year, I headed off to Japan.

Preparing for this was pretty easy, though there was a good amount of paperwork involved. I had to get a physical and an AIDS test (!) in advance, write an essay justifying why I wanted to study at Kansai Gaidai, and for the actual student visa, it was a ton of paperwork culminating in having to physically visit the Japanese Embassy in Washington DC. Fortunately I was interning at Bethesda Softworks the summer beforehand in Rockville MD, so it was a quick train trip away. (If you’re living in Wisconsin or something, I’m not entirely sure what your options are.)

Detroit Departure

With two pieces of luggage and a carry-on, I embarked from Harrisburg International Airport to Detroit, and then began the longest plane trip–14 hours!–of my existence. (I have since mastered the art of trans-Pacific travel, and the Seattle –> Tokyo trip is pretty much effortless now.)

The first picture of me in Japan.

My first week of life in Japan passed by in a drowsy blur–an endless bus ride to the university on a highway that soared far above the single-story houses of Osaka; staying my first night with 3 other students in a tatami dorm room, fighting off an angry digestive system and battling the worst jetlag I’d ever experienced, my discombobulated brain screaming oh god I want to go home right now!. Eventually my body clock caught up with reality and things picked up — I met my wonderful homestay family, and started checking out the local sights (and trawling Osaka/Kyoto for used game and CD stores).

Kansai Gaidai was an awesome school. The faculty was fantastic, most of the students were really interested in being there, and I met some of the best friends I’d ever have. There were also tons of clubs; after a brief stint in Judo I wound up joining the Ballroom Dancing club. (That was a good idea — it’s much better to sweep a partner off their feet with a solid waltz step than a kou ouchi gari.)

Kansai Gaidai circa 1999

I’m not sure how the school is now. They moved the campus and expanded, so the foreign student population has ballooned in size. I’ve heard a lot of complaints that it’s turned into a party school because they’re not as strict on admissions as before, but I guess that’s how things go. If you want to go abroad these days, I guess it’s a toss-up between Kansai Gaidai and Sofia University; I’d still recommend going to Kansai, as Osaka is a lot more laid back, and jumping headfirst into anything related to Tokyo can make your head explode.

I’d also highly recommend getting a host family; mine were wonderful, wonderful people who were always helpful and full of encouragement. And boy oh boy, Mom could cook. We’re talking about a woman who’d make me tacos and make the tortillas from scratch. Yowza!

Next update, I’ll talk about campus life and transitioning to school in Tokyo.