5 Weird Ways Japan Has Censored Video Games

Heads up, some of this article is NSFW. We’re talking like violence, sex and a weird amount of fingers. You’ll see.

1. Toned down gore and violence

You might think America has the baffling censorship game on lock, but the truth is every country has their own hangups when it comes to what’s acceptable in video games. Unlike the US, where Star Wars films that depict dismemberment and decapitations are rated PG, violence is a touchy subject in Japan. That’ll happen when your crime rate is so low that only six people were killed by guns in the country in all of 2014 (for comparison, the US had 33,599 firearm-related deaths that same year).

Since Japan isn’t used to turning on the news and being met with a fountain of blood and viscera spraying out of their screen and directly into the eyes of their children, many violent American games are watered down for import. This has been happening for decades, and it can be as simple as changing the color of the gore in Doom 64 from blood red to pea soup green.

It’s always fascinating to see where the localization team decided to draw the line. In this case, Doom64’s pixelated corpses are the same in both versions, but the bodily fluid actively flying out of injured demons was chosen for alteration.

The green blood switcharoo is a pretty common tactic as far as video game censorship goes. The UK version of Carmageddon has pedestrians with emerald-tinted entrails, and Nintendo went back and gave Ganon a green transfusion for post-release printings of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the US. So it’s not too suprising to see Japan’s version of Mortal Kombat II get the same treatment.

But just because it’s not surprising doesn’t mean it isn’t a little… strange to consider the idea that every Mortal Kombat character has Reptile’s verdant lizard juice running through their veins.

But the most violent part of MK isn’t the gallons of blood spilled every match, it’s the brutal fatalities. Japan had another way of addressing the issue: By turning the whole screen black and white.

This slightly more extreme method is meant to further soften the impact of graphic violence on Japanese audiences, the idea being that the acts depicted on-screen are less realistic if you tweak the color saturation on everything but the UI. The filter applies to every single Fatality in MKII, even if it’s as tame as Liu Kang’s uppercut shown here. Maybe the developers wanted the dramatic black and white effect to apply to all Fatalities to keep the look consistent, or maybe the fact that these moves are explicitly referred to as murders has something to do with it.

Fans of Quentin Tarantino might be familiar with the aforementioned technique, as it was infamously used in the hyperviolent Crazy 88 fight scene in Kill Bill Vol 1. As the story goes, the only way that Miramax could appease the MPAA and get movie down to an R rating was to make a large part of the bloody brawl black and white. The really wild part? In Japan, that whole scene was in color

Frustrating as it may be, these kinds of double standards persist for a number of factors outside of our immediate control. Some folks might say they’re worried about gaming’s inherent interactivity and the effects of engaging in violent (albeit virtual) behavior for an extended period of time, but it likely boils down to a vast generation gap and a fundamental misunderstanding of what games are and what they can be. As people who grew up with games like Mortal Kombat eventually grow old and become the politically dominant demographic, this double-standard will dissipate and we’ll all move onto the next moral panic like augmented reality contact lenses or microchips embedded in our brains or I dunno, sex goggles or something.

Japan isn’t only quick to censor foreign imports. The country is tough, maybe even tougher, on games produced on its own soil. As a result, titles like Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse go out into the rest of the world unscathed, while being doctored for domestic release. 

We sometimes use the word “localization” instead of censorship because the former can be more accurate. When Square-Enix decided to age up sexualized female characters from 15 to 18, for instance, they did so because they recognize Western audiences have different standards when it comes to what’s acceptable and what’s pretty fucking gross. No concerned parents’ group hassled the publisher, and there wasn’t some viral dust up that got out of hand — Square-Enix decided ahead of time that American audiences don’t have the stomach for that kind of sickening horseshit, so they changed it themselves. The Japanese publisher made an informed decision based on what would appeal to the broadest Western audience and acted accordingly. That’s localization. You can also get by calling it censorship, because the English language is a malleable assemblage

But what happens when the biggest market for Japanese console games is outside of Japan? You start to see games made in Japan with explicit violence that’s only accepted in the West, only for the developers to go back and localize their own games for their own market. Which is really a longwinded way to explain why Leon Kennedy’s head can get chainsawed off in the US version of Resident Evil 4 and not in Japan. 

More than a decade later, things still haven’t changed. 2017’s Resident Evil 7 is much tamer in Japan, where the game was developed, than the version that was released in the US. In a scene where a police officer’s head gets bisected by a shovel, the Japanese version literally looks away at the moment of impact, only to look back and see that poor man’s cranium fully intact.

Here’s where the self-localization gets even more bizarre. See, the reason Japanese developers like Capcom keep the explicit content to a minimum is to avoid the dreaded “Cero Z” rating, which legally bars anyone under 18 buying a product with the label. It’s a tougher sell to retailers, kind of like the NC-17 rating used in American movies. Sometimes publishers will split a single game into separate releases, one relatively clean for store shelves and a second version to satisfy those who want an unedited experience. Like The Evil WithinRE7 has its own special “uncensored” edition in Japan, dubbed the “Grotesque Version.” Except in this context, “uncensored” only means “slightly less censored than before.”

So while the camera no longer looks away while the police officer gets stabbed in the head with a shovel, his skull remains intact as his body falls to the floor. 

It’s an odd middle ground that makes the Grotesque Version feel kind of pointless. If Japanese fans care enough to track down a Cero Z copy of RE7, they probably also care enough to import a copy of the game with all of the excessive gore intact and play it the way it was meant to be played, uh, by Americans.

2. Softened sex and nudity

If there’s one thing that Americans can tolerate, it’s extreme violence. Should you broadcast someone’s brains splatter on the wall after a point-blank shot to the head on primetime television, complaints would be minimal, but you show one god damned female areola in these United States and there’ll be hell to pay. You’d think that Japan would be a little more open-minded about sexuality compared to the US, if only because America has set the prudeness bar so high.

But the same country that invented a game where you shoot high school girls with an orgasm gun still has boundaries they won’t cross. The soapy bath fanservice from Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization pictured above is in fact labeled correctly — while this scene made it stateside unchanged, the Japanese version pastes a bikini onto one of the characters. Again, it’s not a big deal for a developer to tweak a game for certain markets, but it’s wild to see Japan as the most conservative when it comes to anime boobs. 

Then again, maybe it’s less of a matter of covering up for Japan than it is stripping down for America. When “Mad City” for the NES was localized for the US and changed to Bayou Billy, Konami put the kidnapped damsel in more revealing clothing.

To be clear, there are definitely cases where sexual content was removed or altered for Japanese audiences. The brothel scene in the Western-developed The Order 1886 made the trip overseas mostly intact, but the JP version was missing one vital component: Female nipples. 

Because the localization team decided to excise the texture and geometry of the offending areolas instead of say, add more clothing, the topless prostitutes of The Order resemble old timey mannequins more than human women. It’s extra weird when you consider the fact that a sequence involving a nude man was made less racy with the addition of a proper pair of trousers. 

Once again, the line of acceptability is hard to pin down. Japan’s release of the original Metal Gear Solid also features clothes on a man who is otherwise seen naked in other territories. Only in this case, the censored nakedness already came pre-censored.

I didn’t doctor the image on the left. In the US, the game itself blurs Johnny Sasaki’s goofy ass. It’s part of the joke. But for some reason, the Japanese version of MGS actually censors the censorship. If you’re looking for some kind of rational explanation, it might not be best to look for one in a series in which a sexy sniper has to wear a bikini so she can breathe through her skin.

3. Japan’s Fallout 3 won’t let you nuke a town

Just past the Liam Neeson-laden introduction, the outset of Fallout 3 thrusts the player out into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. By design, one of the first places you’re likely to run across is Megaton, a town built around an undetonated nuclear bomb. And by design, in one of the first big quests you can embark on, you can choose to nuke Megaton to hell.

How you choose to play out this decision has a huge impact on the game and its NPCs (not to mention your Karma stat), which is why the questline’s absence in the Japanese Fallout 3 of the game feels like a big deal. In that version of the game, you’re never even given the choice to destroy Megaton — the shady NPC Mr. Burke (sitting in the back, below-left) who asks you to arm the bomb is completely gone from the game. 

It’s not hard to understand why this change was made. Anything that evokes the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is obviously going to be subject to change when it comes to localization in the country. Fallout 3 also renamed the “Fat Man” weapon to “Nuka Launcher,” the former being a direct reference to the nickname of the bomb detonated over Nagasaki. “Censorship” is probably not the correct word for these revisions — it just feels like the right thing to do.

4. One murderer affected multiple games in a single year

Shortly after a terrorist shot 600 people in Las Vegas, Netflix announced that it was pushing back the premiere of Marvel’s The Punisher TV series. As with the Fallout 3 changes in Japan, delaying a gunfight-heavy show after a tragic event like that made a lot of sense.

The same kind of thing happened with Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, a game that begins with the protagonist discovering that his species is about to be made into food by an evil corporation. The morbid “Mudokon Pops” appear to be severed heads on a stick, a grisly but ultimately exaggerated form of cartoon kebab. But coincidentally, that same year Japan was rocked by the Kobe child murders, which began when students found a boy’s decaptitated head impaled on their school’s front gate. Oddworld mastermind Lorne Lanning recalls making the call to edit the cutscene: “(..) it shocked the Japanese people; it was very uncommon. In good taste, you change that.” And so, a new graphic was drawn up for Japan — what was once a bloody head kebab became a more palatable popsicle. 

The exact details of the crime and the discovery of the murder scene differ from source to source, which might explain what happened with Crash Bandicoot 2. As ex-Naughty Dog honcho Andy Gavin explained, a specific death animation in Crash 2 was tweaked in response to headlines in 1997. See, when Crash gets smooshed by a trap in the US version, he waddles around afterward. But according to Gavin, this was too reminiscent of a serial killer making the rounds at that time, who left severed heads on top of the shoes of his victims. In the Japanese version of the game, that same death animation shows Crash completely flattened.

I couldn’t find any details on the shoes Gavin refers to, but serial killers in Japan are pretty rare and this was also 1997, so it seems likely the studio had heard rumors about the Kobe killings.

That scenario becomes even more likely when you consider that yet another Western game was changed for Japanese release in 1997. In most other versions, Goldeneye 007 for the Nintendo 64 has an “all weapons” cheat that allows the ability to wield dual hunting knives. In Japan, however, this option has been removed and replaced with… dual-wielding a sniper rifle and a rocket launcher.

The director of the game later confirmed that the weapons were altered for Japan due to then-recent child murders in the country. It might seem strange to Americans to see three huge games affected by one murderer, but Japan wasn’t and still isn’t used to the horrors that might seem more everyday in the US. That any problem could be solved by holding a rocket launcher and a sniper rifle at the same time is bizarre, no doubt about it, but context matters.

5. Japan wants to avoid four-fingered characters

So far we’ve dealt with subjects that the average Westerner will have a good handle on. It’s not surprising that games were censored or localized due to violence, nudity or historical significance, but the way these games change for other markets can be fascinating.

What you might not be familiar with is Japan’s hesitance to portray characters with four fingers on each hand. Though the Crash Bandicoot we see on the US cover of the game sports eight total digits altogether, that number is bumped up to ten for Japanese shelves. The disparity between Crash’s hands continues to this day, as you can see with the packaging for 2017’s N. Sane Trilogy. Look closely and you can spot a fifth finger behind Crash’s right thumb. 

Similar edits were made to covers of games starring The Simpsons, who have historically always sported four fingers per hand. 

For the most part, characters were only given an extra finger for the Japanese box art; though the star of Bart’s Nightmare might have five on the box, characters in the game itself still have four fingers. Likewise, the gameplay models for Crash Bandicoot remain unchanged as well; apparently it’s all a matter of what’s on the cover and in the marketing for the game.

One notable exception to the box art-only rule is Fat Princess, which originally featured characters with the cartoon standard four fingers. As it happens, the game was delayed in Japan — only to show up later with five-fingered characters.

So what’s the deal? Well, there’s not exactly one catch-all explanation. Over the years, many developers and publishers have given different reasons for the five-finger localization. Fans have long speculated it has to do with a stigma related to the Yakuza, who are said to be punished for failure (or massive debt) with a severed digit. The number 4 itself also has some spooky connotations across the Pacific, mostly because the pronounciation sounds similar to the Japanese word for “death.”

But the most common rationale has to do with the a section of the working class that performed what some considered “impure” professions like butchers and morticians. The “burakumin” caste was reviled and discriminated against for a long time, often by people holding out four fingers when referring to them — four in this case representing the belief that burakumin were like animals and walked an all fours. 

In this context, holding up four fingers is basically a slur. You can see why characters who have four fingers at all times could be seen as a huge insult by burakumin organizations.

In addition to the Mudokon Pops issue, the developers of Abe’s Oddysee also happened to have a four-fingered protagonist. Instead of bumping him up to a full five, Oddworld Inhabitants snipped off one of Abe’s fingers for the Japanese release, even for gameplay and cinematics.

For every appearance following, worldwide, Abe was seen with only three fingers. Presumably this was to save time and money on localization for Japan. There’s a section on the Oddworld website that goes over this issue. The handful of bitter paragraphs alleges the studio was told Disney pays unnamed organizations five million dollars a year so that Mickey Mouse can appear with his standard four fingers in media and merchandise across Japan. That rumor hasn’t been substantiated, but the four fingered taboo has had a real effect on localized games. It might seem like a minor tweak on the surface, but a small change like that can mean a lot.


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