Something About Japan: why Xbox One could be Microsoft’s final strike

Microsoft snubbed Japan with its handling of the Xbox One reveal this week, and the next-gen console shows little sign of reversing Microsoft’s fortunes in Japan.

We all know that the Xbox and 360 have struggled to gain a foothold in Japan, a market that comprises around 10 per cent of global videogame sales. The 360 consistently comes last in the weekly hardware charts, with just 349 sales last week, and to date has sold a meagre 1.7 million units in Japan – a country with a population of 127.5 million. Microsoft’s booth at Tokyo Game Show got smaller and smaller until last year, when Xbox simply didn’t bother showing up. Still, it has its fans here. Let’s take a look at how Tuesday’s announcement went down.

The name Xbox One was quickly derided by Japanese gamers. The English word “one” is pronounced “wan” in Japan, which is the same as the noise a dog makes. So a canine is known as a “wan-wan” or a “wan-chan” – cue a barrage of Japanese-language tweets stuffed with emoticons of cute little puppies.

But a worse nickname quickly stuck. As Dylan Cuthbert of Q-Games tweeted, “In Japan it is abbreviated to X1 or batsu-ichi which is slang for someone who has got divorced and kind of means failure #seriousfail”.

Indeed, X is used just like in English to denote a mistake, and so “X1” or “batsu-ichi” can literally be translated as “strike one”. As a commenter on online otaku gossip hole 2channel pointed out, “Xbox has already had two strikes in Japan”.

Although the the used-game and DRM issues have not ignited debate in Japan in quite the way they have in the West, the One’s mandatory internet connection was unsurprisingly labelled as a “nuisance” by Japanese commenters.

In many ways the One is the most America-centric Xbox to date: Many of the new features, such as the heavy focus on watching cable TV, seem a non-starter even in Europe, let alone Japan, and Microsoft has already said that the service will be US-only at launch.

Also, the system’s reliance on Kinect to function doesn’t help. The original Kinect has utterly failed to appeal to Japanese gamers, whose homes are typically too small for it to work. Although Kinect 2 will have a wider-angle lens that allows it to function in close quarters, the perception of Kinect among Japanese gamers is possibly irreversibly tarnished.

As one frustrated Japanese Twitter user put it, “The new Xbox is packed with features that will be useless in Japan.”

Others criticised Microsoft’s general lack of care in its approach towards Japan, a unique territory that requires different methods of marketing. The company recently brewed bad will with the botched launches of its Windows Phone 8 and Surface Pro tablet. “Microsoft’s approach in Japan with the Windows Phone and Surface Pro does not bode well for the Xbox,” said another Twitter user. “They need to adapt better to the Japanese market.”

Don Mattrick, president of Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft, told OXM before the reveal that his company is “committed to Japan.” “We think it’s an important market,” he added. “And we’ll continue building on the working investment that we’ve done over all these years.”

He went on to say that specific details for each market will be forthcoming. But Mattrick’s comments do not ring true, as Microsoft showed little love for Japan in the unveiling of One. The press conference was held at Microsoft’s HQ in Redmond, Washington, at 1pm local time on Tuesday, which in Japan was 2am on Wednesday – far from convenient. Sony’s PS4 reveal in February was held at a time that worked across US, EU and JP time zones.

And as noted on Twitter the day after the reveal by John Ricciardi, a translator with Tokyo-based localisation company 8-4, the Xbox Japan website “has no section for Xbox One, not even a news story about it – just yesterday’s stream, simultaneously translated. No love for JP.”

He continued, “I mention simultaneously translated because that is about the #1 most ghetto way you can do it. No real thought or effort put into it.”

Those Xbox fans who do exist in Japan mostly expressed concern after the reveal. “I wonder whether they’ll even bother releasing the new Xbox in Japan,” said one on Twitter. “I wouldn’t mind so much if the Wii U had a decent selection of Western games, but that’s never gonna happen.”

“I’d prefer it if they made a Western version and a Japan version (of Xbox One)!” said another. “The Xbox has done OK as a home for all those erotic games though, right?” joked a third, referring to the 360’s impressive selection of hentai games, pretty much the only Japan-centric genre the system has attracted.

I reached out to several Japanese developers to ask their opinion of One but all of them declined comment. “Kinect demo looks fantastico ( ☆∀☆)” wrote Tak Fujii, a producer at Konami, in one of the few overwhelmingly positive comments on Twitter. Gaming website Famitsu.com ran a news story confirming that the Xbox One will get a Japan release. But its various One articles received few user comments.

Twitter and messageboards will always attract the more passionate core gamers, and perhaps they are a vocal minority. Perhaps. But the problems much of the world seems to have with Xbox One have been amplified by the general apathy Japan feels for the Xbox brand. Unless it changes the way it deals with this lucrative but unique market, this really could be Microsoft’s final strike in Japan.