Nintendo’s newest entry in the acclaimed Fire Emblem strategy RPG series, Fire Emblem Fates (Fire Emblem if in Japan) was released on June 25th here in Japan. I had to ask myself, “Will I bother getting this?” It’s a conundrum, because while I’ve never been a fan of lengthy strategy RPG combat, Nintendo just announced that there are gay and lesbian options in the game’s relationship system. Despite probably not having quite the level of Japanese reading skills for this game, I’ve decided I’m going to throw my money at it regardless to support this inclusion. However, in reading about this inclusive step on Twitter and related media, I’ve seen a worrying trend that I felt should be addressed.
Fire Emblem Fates is actually two games, with Birthright (White Night Kingdom in Japan) being the traditional “good guys” path where you join the Hoshido clan, and Conquest (Dark Night Kingdom in Japan) being a darker path where you join the Nohr clan. Nintendo stated that buying one allows you to buy the other as DLC, and that a third connecting story will be released later, also as DLC. In this announcement, Nintendo also stated that in an effort to be more inclusive towards their fanbase, they have added gay/lesbian options to pair with your custom created character. The way they chose to do this is unique, as there is only one gay man and one lesbian woman, and initially you can only meet the woman in Birthright and the man in Conquest. This means that, until the DLC at least, your choice of game and clan is limited by which gender you want to be with. To be fair, that’s not just the homosexual characters, but all of them—as both games have their own unique characters and clans. Confusing, huh?
The sticking point of this for the various social media complaints has been that there is only one homosexual character of each gender. I’ve personally seen people saying that this move is “the minimum,” “a token,” and “insulting.” There have been tweets insinuating that this isn’t inclusion at all, but simply Nintendo throwing in empty platitudes in the form of one gay character. What stands out most about these complaints is the level of anger and disgust being leveled against Nintendo for this. But what bothers me personally is the lack of perspective is shaping this argument.
First off, we’re talking about Nintendo of Japan in this case, and we have to stop and ask ourselves what that means. This is not a move by Nintendo of America to change the game to placate Western audiences, this is a step taken in Japan from the beginning of development. That’s crucial, because despite how much we as Westerners really want the world to be our way, the truth is that Japan is a deceptively different country. From the outside, Japan looks all very modern, forward-thinking, and accepting. Many people hear about how little violence and blatant discrimination goes on here, see things like yaoi and yuri manga, and play adult games that include every part of the queer spectrum imaginable. But this is a false perception, and it’s based on the difference between the two countries culturally.
In America, most of the argument over issues like gay marriage are religious ones, and both sides are very vocal about it. This creates a sort of ideological war that is not unlike the wars of Fire Emblem itself. In Japan, however, religion doesn’t create this anger, but instead people treat these issues as non-issues, choosing to not even discuss them in exchange for a false sense of “harmony.” To people on the outside, it looks like America is the struggle and Japan is peaceful. But the reality of Japanese life is that discrimination against LGB people in particular is inherent, to the point where it’s treated as “the way things are” and not worth changing.
Here, everyone considers you heterosexual, and will often force that sexuality on you in your everyday life. I talked with a bisexual woman in her 40s last week who was desperate to leave Japan because she felt that everyone here pushed her into a heterosexual role. Coworkers socially force her to go on dates, companies incentivize women to “get married and leave the workplace,” and outing yourself isn’t an option. In Japan, anti-discrimination laws are relatively non-existent, and many LGBT people have been fired for coming out. Same-sex partners are not allowed in government-controlled couples housing, and are equally denied private housing by landlords who simply don’t want to rent to such a “scandalous” couple. While I can’t say what my own job is, I can say that as a foreigner, even I and other people like me are not immune to the possibility of this discrimination.
While Japan looks comfy on the surface, the reality can be harsh and stifling. Meanwhile, America looks hateful and violent on the surface, but the reality is that gay marriage is spreading, anti-discrimination laws are springing up everywhere, and slowly the battle is being won. Things are bad in different ways in both countries, to be sure, but it’s all about cultural perspective.
So that brings us back to Nintendo of Japan, a company based in Kyoto, one of the most conservative cities in all of Japan. Because Nintendo makes video games, we tend to get the idea that they’re a very liberal, open company. But the truth is, they are well-known in industry circles as the most conservative of all gaming companies. When you look at Nintendo’s history, its policies, and so on, you can see this reflected. But times have begun to change in the West, and Nintendo has realized it can no longer be a solely Japan-focused company. After all, the gaming market in Japan is slowly shrinking, while it’s roughly expanding in America. This move seems logical from a Nintendo of America standpoint, but coming from Nintendo of Japan, this is a huge step that is bucking the entire system in Japan.
I saw one Twitterer say that, “If 18+ games have been doing gay for years, why can’t Nintendo?” and I think the answer is actually hidden in the question. Adult games here, while popular and weirdly mainstream, are still socially considered scandalous. Stores that sell them have to give them their own roped off section—only for adults. Some stores even put them on a totally different floor of the building than the others. Because homosexuality almost exclusively exists only in the 18+ games here, the culture is implying that gay is scandalous, and should be hidden. A few Japanese companies have put gay characters in their games, but are almost never treated with respect, instead being a stereotypical joke.
I once had a debate over a certain transgender character in the Atlus game Catherine. A lot of people in the West hated the way the character was handled, while people in Japan were pleased. While the game does make a joke of the character at one point, the joke isn’t actually on her so much as the guy who was having sex with her. While I’ll admit that some of the choices were ham-fisted at best, the majority of this character was written in a way that was extremely positive and inclusive by Japanese standards. My major point is that perspective has to be taken into account, because Japan has not progressed like the U.S. You can’t build a skyscraper before the foundation is dry, and you certainly don’t tear the whole thing down because of it.
But this war-like attitude continues, and Nintendo is now the brunt of it. From my perspective, however, this attack is pushing the agenda too quickly. Nintendo is the same company that, only last year, refused to add same-sex marriage in Tomodachi Life. For them, as the giant of conservative gaming in Japan and the West, to put even one serious gay relationship in a major franchise is something that should be praised. The Twitter campaign over Tomodachi Life was justified, teaching Nintendo a valuable lesson. In the end, while we didn’t win that battle, we did wear down Nintendo and proved something to them. For Fire Emblem to have these gay/lesbian options means that progress is being made. But wars aren’t won in a day, and you don’t attack your newest allies the moment they join your side.
Nintendo, first and foremost, is a company with shareholder expectations. They have to decide if this is a smart move for them, and as consumers, we have to support them if we want to keep winning this battle. If we expect the world in a day, we will ultimately only alienate our potential allies and turn them back into the hands of ‘Concerned Christian Mothers Against Videogames,’ or whatever the opposition is calling themselves these days.
If Nintendo drops these sort of inclusive measures in the future, or only ever gives us one gay character per game for the next few years, then there’s a justifiable debate to be had. But in our quest to bring social change to the world, let’s not get too greedy and ambitious for our own good. Now is the time to show Nintendo that we support these measures, that LGBTQIA+ people do exist and spend money, and that our love is just as strong as theirs. I know I will by buying the game today, and I hope you will do the same when it comes out in English next year.