A lot of hubbub has been raised recently regarding the lack of a gay option in Persona 5. It’s far from the first time such criticisms have been leveled at the Japanese gaming industry, but why is that? why is the gaming press so obsessed with LGBT representation and why are Japanese games bereft of it? I believe it all comes down to cultural sensitivities.
There’s a famous saying in Japanese that goes something like “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, an admonishment against calling attention to oneself, much the opposite to the western idiom “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. While homosexuality is not inherently taboo in Japanese culture, standing out is. There won’t be preachers damning you to hell, but don’t try to hold hands with your boyfriend or girlfriend outside and kissing is right out. I’m not going to excuse it, it’s pretty bad, but I want to point it out to illustrate the position of the Japanese developers.
Meanwhile, in the west such stigma doesn’t exist. Much the opposite in fact, people are encouraged to be open about their sexualities and even incorporate them into their identity. Here is where the problem with representation and tokenism rears its head, this is what leads media makers, and in this case game developers, to add characters fitting such identities, but with nothing else to speak of in order to fill a diversity checklist. Bioware is particularly famous for this behavior in Mass Effect and Dragon Age, to the point where some characters have so little going on that their appearance on the game seems to be reduced to resident queer.
What can we take from this? First, criticizing the writing of Japanese without any insight on Japanese culture and their views is myopic and a bit entitled, some would say even colonialist. Second, it’s also rather useless. It’s doubtful Japanese developers will cater to the international market considering they’re primarily making games for the Japanese audience. Third, western developers including LGBT characters despite having an otherwise thin characterization is more damaging than them simply not being present; it’s not something to praised.
We can agree on something however, if any major Japanese series was going open a serious, adult discussion on gay people in Japan it’d have been Persona with its focus on side-character development and social ills. It wouldn’t be the first time Persona does this, with Persona 4 tackling this need to conform to society with Kanji “has girly hobbies, but likely isn’t gay at all” Tatsumi and Yosuke “I’m staying in this closet for a few more years, ok?” Hanamura. I, personally, would had liked the gay option in Persona 5, but I don’t begrudge Atlus for not including it. It’s their game, product and story and they can tell it however they like (and it took ten years to make without any of that, did you want to wait more?)
What is the path forward in my opinion? on this matter, I defer to the patron saint of this blog, Yoko Taro. On NieR, Emil is very slightly implied to be homosexual and having a crush on brother!Nier (and I mean who wouldn’t?) by expressing his desire to be Nier’s bride. Yoko-san confirmed Emil’s sexuality and explained his viewpoint in this interview:
-There always seem to be some characters with unusual sexual preferences in Yokoo’s works.
Natori: We just feel like that we’re reflecting the real world while creating the worldview and settings.
Yokoo: How would you define “unusual”, is the question. If we look around, we can definitely see homosexuals, few in number they may be. I’m not trying to say “Don’t discriminate” or anything like that, just “People like that exist. It’s simply the way the world works.” They’re labeled with “normal”, “unusual” and compared quite often, but the difference between people with certain sexual preferences lies purely in number. Some are quite abundant, some are not, but we’re all in the same world. I never intended for them to appear as special.
This is how I feel about my own bisexuality, I exist and I love my gay boyfriend. I don’t find my attraction to men a particularly salient feature of my identity and the implication that I’d prefer a game simply for having LGBT characters feels a bit insulting. We are much more than who we sleep with.
Bottom line, when Japanese developers feel the need to acknowledge, to use Yoko-san’s words, “unusual” people in their games they will do so, rushing them might force them to include half-baked LGBT characters. Western developers, on the other hand, should reconsider adding LGBT characters if they don’t plan on developing them any further than that. We should strive for good characterization and inclusion as opposed to tokenism.
PS. Having said all that, if you’re reading this and you want to add a patch so I can date my boi Ryuji (and maybe daddy Iwai) you can go right ahead Atlus.