For those who game, Japan may be the most important country in the world. It's also the least understood. Despite being one of the U.S.'s closest economic and political allies, one of the most culturally significant and the most Westernized country in Asia, to most people, Japan remains at best enigmatic, at worst downright crazy.

The enduring Japanese stereotype is still that of the mysterious, shifty traditionalist, captured in such ridiculous perfection in nonsense like the Sean Connery movie Rising Sun - a stereotype that reared its head in the days following the 360's lackluster launch in Japan.

Suddenly, a thousand amateur market analysts sprung up overnight, each one with his explanation of why the Xbox was failing in Japan. The excuses ran the gamut, suggesting mild Japanese nationalism to outright xenophobia and hatred of American products, but they all focused on one thing: an irrational desire to buy Japanese.

"[The] Xbox will fail because it's American. Japanese are only interested in flooding our markets with their products, but not accepting any of ours," said a poster on a popular business site.

"Anyone who denies there is an anti non-Jap video game mentality in Japan is living in a fantasy world," said another on a big gaming website.

After years of dominance by Japanese manufacturers, the arrival of Microsoft as a serious force in the game market has seen fanboy-ism take on a worrying new face - that of flag-waving, fist-pumping nationalism, an us-and-them mentality that is surely the exact opposite of what the international language of videogames should be inspiring.

For American gamers who had happily bought Japanese consoles, the failure of the Xbox brand in Japan was a slap in the face. Is there really a racist element to the Xbox's lack of success? Or is it all down to software, and if it is, what is wrong with what the Xbox offers? Just what do the Japanese buy, and why?

Tainted Love
In search of an answer, I spoke to Hirokazu Hamamura, President of Enterbrain, the parent company of Japanese videogaming bible Famitsu.

"Unfortunately, the Xbox 360's slump in Japan continues," said Hamamura. "There are many reasons for this, but the biggest reason is that it lacked titles for Japanese tastes.

"Furthermore, the hype at the time was unfortunate. At the time of launch, the Nintendo DS was causing a sensation. Under the pressure of the extraordinary popularity of the DS, Xbox couldn't create any kind of movement. In terms of timing, I think Microsoft were unlucky."

Certainly, the 360's launch coincided with the sudden rush for DS units. Was nationalism a factor?

"I don't believe there's any truth to that," John Yang, a market analyst with Standard & Poors in Tokyo, told The Escapist. "Many non-Japanese products have done well in Japan, like luxury cars from Mercedes and BMW."

Indeed, far from being a disadvantage, foreignness in Japan can lend a company a coolness factor that marketing can't buy. Witness how iPods fly off the shelves, while brands by Sony and Toshiba gather dust. The Starbucks in Shibuya is reputedly the busiest in the world, and McDonalds outlets are everywhere. Disney is simply impossible to avoid, despite Japan being one of the world leaders in animation.

These companies distanced themselves from their competitors, tailoring their product to Japanese tastes. With the original Xbox, Microsoft tried to beat the PlayStation at its own game - and they lost spectacularly. The big-name titles Microsoft secured were ports of old PS2 titles everybody already owned, like Metal Gear Solid and Onimusha. The PS2 had the market sewn up long before Microsoft ever arrived.

In their desire to show up Sony with an ultimately botched simultaneous worldwide launch of the 360, Microsoft may have destroyed the one chance they had to recover.

"The titles we had hoped for [Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey] weren't available at launch time," Kenichiro Yamazaki, the PR Manager for Microsoft Japan's Xbox Division, told The Escapist. "We learned from the first Xbox that we did not offer enough titles that were of interest to Japanese gamers, and we've taken the necessary steps to resolve this issue." But they launched without them to make that worldwide launch window.

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