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How to Japanese at the Table

I swear, you drop one more pithy accented non-aphorism and I’ll shoot this “wise ancient man” stereotype.

This is a followup to the “May I play…” article linked to two posts ago.

Mendez’ article is great, and I wanted to follow up on my end with some practical table advice for using Japan specifically (or “AsiaLand”, as it happens in western-developed fantasy RPGs) at the table. This covers both historical and contemporary Japan.

Long story short: I have used Japan as a theme in games a lot: Contemporary games, historical games, fantasy games, many set in Japan or a Japan-analogue. I am fluent in Japanese, use it primarily at my day job. I have lived in Japan for almost 10 total years now. My interest in Japan is far more sociological than historical (read: I know countless things about various Japanese counterculture movements and scenes; but I know jack and shit about the details of various historical battles and the like). When I write something about Japan, I always float it by a group of Japanese gaming friends to get their feedback.

Further, I’ve been subjected to the kind of torture session that Mendez highlighted, usually at one-shot sessions at conventions and meetups and the like: Most often the “old/wizened master or gruff samurai who only speaks in thick accents, aphorisms, grunts, or accented aphorism-grunts.” This is particularly ridiculous when you’re playing a game set in Legend of the Five Rings (which will get its own post, believe me! 🙂 ) or like TORG’s Nippon Empire, where *all* of the characters are from the same culture so would not have an “Asian accent” when talking with each other.

Killing Accents Before They Start

So sure, Lesson One is “Knock that shit off”. But we’re going to pre-cog that shit so it doesn’t start in the first place. If you run a session with an Asian theme, please feel encouraged to start the session off before you begin handing out characters with a simple “By the way, you are all from Asia-Land(tm), so none of you will have an ‘Asian accent’ with each other. So let’s take “stereotypical Asian accents” off the table for this session.” Or if there is one or more Asian player characters at the table, maybe drop a similar reminder in: “If you speak with an accent, tell us during your character introduction about how accented your English is. But for the session itself, just talk in character with no accent, please.”

Even if you are not the GM, and thus not “running the table”, please feel free as a player to be bold and interject the above before play begins. You can be self-effacing by starting off the conversation with “Hey, by the way, I had a weird experience a bit ago where this person did a really stereotypical accent the entire session. It was like fingernails on a chalkboard the entire session. So let’s not do that at this table, okay?” (while enthusiastically looking at the GM and other players to signify “you’re with me on this, right?”). Just starting off the session on a positive note like that will likely kill that sort of thing before it starts.

The above situations are for those convention games where you don’t know most/all of the other players. If you’re playing with friends, then no problem you should all be fine with correcting each other without harm in play if something like that happens.

The reason I push for this kind of “Positive Energy Preemptive Strike” with the kind of statements above before play begins, is because it is SO EASY and quick to say, it’s less time and energy than fastening a seat belt. However, if no one says anything but then someone at the table (who hadn’t received the memo that “this shit is played out”) starts into a – heck, even a good/well-meaning and not “Mickey Rooney” – accent at the table… it’s really hard to put the shit back in the horse at that point. It’s still worth bringing up for sure (a gentle phrase I use is, “Ahhh, yeah man, sorry, we don’t do that at this table” and quickly move on without lingering on them), but at that point you’re climbing out on that tightrope, balancing between “hurt feels/shame” “group mood” “self doubt at bringing it up” (“if it’s just me, maybe it’s not really a problem?”) and so on.

Ever feel that “Oh man, I think I need to pee in the next 30 minutes” feeling during a blockbuster superhero movie at the crowded theater? That amount of background stress is nothing compared to aiming for the perfect moment to gently tell someone their fake accent is making you uncomfortable after they’ve already been doing it for five minutes. Still. Worth. Doing. Though.

From here, I focus on positive stuff.

Dive into Describing Language

Part One: Pick Another Accent, or Describe How They Talk

Language – even the non-understanding of a fake language like “High Elven” – is a rich thing that can bring so much flavor to your session. The Japanese language has so many areas where it differs from romance languages that just bringing up those points of difference can enhance what happens in a scene. Also, Japanese is totally more difficult than High Elven: Indirect Object; Direct Object; Predicate with omitted Subject my ass.

For accents, I address the different way people talk in – say a fantasy Japan game – by using accents and dialects found in cultures that the players are familiar with. If they encounter a “wise old woman/man”, the accent I use for them is usually an Elizabethan-style or comical/cartoonish “old person”, without any “Asian accent”. If the Yakuza or other criminals are involved, they have Brooklyn, or Chicago accents (if I could do a Liverpool accent, I’d bring that in too; but I can’t so I don’t). I voice Inaka-mono/farmers in the field like people from the American South. Why these? Because this is what (admittedly from a very hyojungo/”Tokyo-centric” point of view) Japanese people sound like to each other. We’re not simply masking/eliminating accents so that “whiny people don’t have their feelings hurt”, we’re changing it to make it more relate-able – and perhaps more impact-ful – to everyone at the table.

Part Two: Playing with Politeness and Honorifics

There’s this kind of mental test I have when I hear people describe linguistic encounters in Japan, especially from folks with a level of Japanese speaking ability. I forgot where this was from, but this example is burned in my brain from some book or news article from probably 20 years ago: Some western businessman and their western translator lackey were at some big rich business dinner in Tokyo that had “geisha” (read: totally not geisha, just a restaurant greeter). The “geisha” held the door for them and said something. The business dude turns to the translator, “What did she say?”

“She said, “May I be allowed to humbly open the honorable door for you?”

The businessman’s mind was blown. “WOW! Holy shit these Japanese people are so honor-bound, their culture is so rich and unique, and they really understand respecting the customer! Modern day goddamn samurai” (chomps on cigar)

Naw. See, that translator? He was being a fucking douchebag in order to look like hot “finger on the pulse of Japan” shit to his boss. He played up the encounter in order to make the night about him/his skills to his authority.

Sure, if you transliterate exactly what she said going into excruciating lengths to make them sound like porcelain samurai dolls that spit Yoda rhymes, yeah it looks like she’s about to honorably throw herself on the ground so that respectable white business-sama can humbly step on her head to climb into his cab. All that she fucking really said though – in any realistic translation that isn’t weird Japanese xenophelia – was “Let me get the door for you.” Same as when the white businessman said “I’ve got this” when getting the check, he wasn’t “laying sole ancestral claim to the possession of the bill, like his knight ancestors did to castles and lands during the Holy Crusades”. Stop that shit.

Let’s lose the excruciating honorifics when describing stuff in Japanese or Japanese-analogue. Not everything is “honorable” or “humble/humbly”. Play up other parts of the language/encounter to evoke that sense of “social division” in your session. It’s not really “racist” to talk like the above, but it is fucking annoying to people who come from a background of that language. I say the above as examples of Japan/Japanese, but I’m sure you can find the same footprints in other Asian languages.

And yet! There’s still room to play here, as Japanese (and your Japanese-analogue) language does have levels/forms which romance languages do not.

Japanese has various levels of politeness, from common (very close friends/family) to polite (friends) to rough (thugs, close friends) to very polite/keigo (customers/seniors/higher status; like the lady holding the taxi door above) to extremely polite (esteemed customers, nobility). What we should do in English, since we don’t really have that level of politeness/formality in English (except for ancient “thou’s” and the like), is come right out and descriptively use language-talk and say things like:

GM: The young carpenter talks to you using very polite Japanese/Rokugani/etc, “How can I help you?” You’re kind of thrown off by his speech, given that others in town address you more plainly.

GM: The servant (until now it’s assumed that she’s been using customer-polite speech, I as GM/player don’t say this) turns back to the steward and drops to an almost street level thug speech when she thinks you can’t hear her. “The fuck? I told you to get that food ready. Where the fuck is your head tonight?”

Doing so in turn gets the players into it: With no knowledge of Japanese (or “Asia-Land-ese”), they will say things like “I turn to her, and address her in extremely polite Japanese. Like, this is normally completely out of character for me, since I usually talk plainly to everyone. I say…” (etc). It really carries the authenticity of playing in another culture, but without falling on stereotypes, and without having academic depth (or guilt because you didn’t “learn Japanese for 5 years” before playing a fantasy samurai). Engagement, respect, and fun: Language then becomes a setting feature to be experimented with and engaged with like gun-swords or magical fireballs.

The above requires a little bit of that magic called “Director’s Stance”, where you don’t just roleplay but also tell others what they see/notice and other little facts about the world before, during, and after your in-character narration. But the payoff is big; the story grows strong; the immersion in the fiction goes way, way deep.

The above are a few lessons that I’ve actually brought to the table over many years, which have turned a “Japanese/Japanese-themed game” into a much deeper experience for all, in a way which is Respectful, requires no deep learning/research (so none of that self-effacing “I can’t bring myself to play a fake Asian in a fake Asia-land game without doing grad-level research so I don’t make a mistake” stuff), and brings the experience deeper as it makes language and culture a living thing that can be set and played with in game: Rather than excruciatingly detailed descriptions of the characters swords only, we could focus on making our characters’ personalities stand out by detailed descriptions of how they address people/communicate with others.

My examples are for/about Japan, but I’m sure you can find other languages and cultures with their own unique and interesting grammar devices, that could be manipulated in play to create more depth-of-culture in play.

At the very least, back in the US I ran several campaigns of games set in fantasy-Japan or with contemporary Japanese influence, where mostly white/black tables never had to fall into stereotypical accents or the like to “make the game feel more Asian”. Best of luck at your table!

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