Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Real Yokosuka That Shenmue Chose Not To Simulate | IGN Japan Article Translation

This is a translation of an article published by IGN Japan on 24 December 2018.

A City with an Inseparable Relationship with the U.S. Naval Base

"In Dragon Quest III, for example, you leave Aliahan on the day of your 16th birthday, right? Shenmue I is a game that depicts only the hero's daily life in his hometown before he sets off on his journey."

This remark about Shenmue was made to me by Esra Krabbe when we spoke at the IGN Japan year-end party.

Before the upcoming Shenmue fan meeting on 24 December (2018), my editorial department received word from Yokosuka City about a Shenmue excursion to be held on 14 December. Being the multi-genre writer that I am, I decided to head there.

When I arrived at the meeting place, the other participants reacted with surprise: "Isn't Mr. Krabbe from IGN Japan coming?" I replied, "Actually, he already wrote a report about the Shenmue Sacred Spot pilgrimage last year," and continued: "For this one, I'd like to look at the world of Shenmue from a completely different perspective than Esra. I want to write a report that combines a documentary with the Sacred Spot pilgrimage".

What was the real Yokosuka like? I asked the locals about how Yokosuka used to be in 1986, when the first Shenmue game was set, and how things have changed since then.

A Place Called Yokosuka

Why was Shenmue set in Yokosuka in the first place? Even if an analogy can be drawn with the town of Aliahan before the hero sets off on his journey, it is none-the-less a very distinctive place in itself.

The Chaos of 1986 Yokosuka

Back in 1999, not only was it a surprise that a major title would be set in Japan, it was also a shock that a major game that cost 7 billion yen to make would be set in a regional city. Not only that, but there was also a series of games released around the same time, such as Front Mission 3, that featured the same setting. So for me, Yokosuka had a special place in my heart.

Japanese Self Defense Force base in Yokosuka, as featured in Front Mission 3

At the time, [the game's depiction of] Yokosuka, which had been chosen as the place from which the main character Ryo Hazuki sets off on his journey, was praised as "a simulator that recreates daily life in a regional town". But these days, when many video games are released that recreate the real world, the atmosphere of the area itself also has a strong correlation with the video game experience.

That mood, which is unique to Shenmue I, and is not in Shenmue II, has to do with the chaos that existed in Yokosuka in 1986. This chaos is reiterated by the people of Yokosuka who live there.

Sirens at Yokosuka Port: Daily Life in a Base Town

Eriko Furusaki of the Yokosuka City Tourism Division. She is also a hardcore gamer with a high-spec PC who enjoys playing Fallout 76. Of course, she has also cleared Shenmue.

I was told, "Don't go there at night, it's dangerous!"

"When I was a kid, I lived in Fujisawa. Back then, my family told me to stay away from Yokosuka at night because it was dangerous. At first I had a scary image of Yokosuka," said Eriko Furusaki of the Yokosuka City Tourism Division, talking about how Yokosuka used to be.

Ms. Furusaki organized this tour in cooperation with the Yokosuka City Tourism Association. While once having an impression of it being intimidating, she moved to Yokosuka when she got married. Since then, she has been working at the current Tourism Division, where she plans events in conjunction with various subcultures. In contrast to when she was a child, Yokosuka has become her daily life.

Our field trip began in front of Shioiri Terminal with a cruise of Yokosuka Naval Port. Sirens wailed and warships could be seen lined up in the ocean.

"Today's quite unusual - there are three submarines in a row. Normally you only see two of them," said Ms. Furusaki.

As we boarded the ship and began our cruise, our guide gave an explanation on the ships docked in the harbor.

"If you fall into the sea and swim in the wrong direction, you'll end up in U.S. territory, so please be careful," he joked. Even in the smallest of remarks, the military significance of the base can be strongly felt.

Not being used to life in this base town, I felt a certain tension. In fact, during the tour, phrases like "classified military information" came up frequently. Having known Yokosuka only from Shenmue, I was all the more aware of how daily life came in close proximity to U.S. military, something not depicted in the game.

Takeru Abe of Triangle, Inc., the company that runs the Yokosuka Naval Port Cruise, says, "I found it very strange that the place I live in became a game".

Everyday Scenes Turned into a Blockbuster Game

Across the water, the harbor where Ryo used to drive his forklift can be seen.

"I've spent my whole life in Yokosuka since I was small, so I wondered how the things I see all the time could be made into a blockbuster game".

Yokosuka did not used to be a special place for Mr. Abe; it was just a place where people went about their daily lives as a matter of course. He sees Shenmue as a strange phenomenon which took that and turned it into a game.
From left: Koe Sato, Eriko Furusaki, Sanka Hirota of the Yokosuka City Tourism Association facilitated the tour.

"I've only recently learned about Shenmue. Yokosuka is home to a U.S. military base, so I thought it might be a military story, but I was surprised to find out that the way it features everyday life is what makes it special," said Koe Sato.

The real Dobuita Street in 1986 (photo: Ms. Sato)

Like Ms. Furusaki, she works as a designer at the Yokosuka City Tourism Division. For the Yokosuka City joint promotion with Shenmue, she created a Sacred Spot guide map. Ms. Sato spent time in Yokosuka in 1986 as an art student, and has seen how it has changed over the past 30 years. As we toured the city, she explained the history of Yokosuka.

The Virtual Dobuita Street: the Presence of U.S. Forces is Blurred

Shenmue I has been praised as a realistic simulator of daily life, even recreating the weather as it was in 1986. However, the most characteristic part of Yokosuka City has not been faithfully reproduced by not clearly depicting the presence of the U.S. military.

Dobuita Street in Shenmue looks like the kind of shopping street you might find anywhere in Japan, but in reality this is not how it was. It is a place where the presence of U.S. troops in Japan have become an everyday sight, where U.S. soldiers come and go even during the day. In Shenmue too, for a local Japanese city in the 80's there are relatively many foreigners coming and going; some of the menus are written in English with prices in dollars and so on, so it is not completely unrepresented. Indeed, on maps of the harbor it even shows the entrance to the U.S. naval base. Having said that, without exploring in great detail it is hard to see that it is a city intertwined with the U.S. military presence; with the exception of a few lines of dialogue, there is hardly any mention of the U.S. military. There is no doubt that it is hazily depicted.

Yokosuka is a place where the U.S. and Japan are woven together like a mosaic. Dobuita Street is a perfect example of this. Mixed in alongside tattoo stores and burger stores are soba noodle shops and long-established eel restaurants. It's not unusual to see an elderly Japanese couple slowly walking past a group of hefty U,.S. soldiers in conversation

The strange thing about Shenmue is that, despite the fact that most foreigners walking the streets are U.S. troops based in Japan, this is not clearly portrayed. The reality of foreigners coming and going couldn't be ignored, and indeed some of the foreign characters in the game have "U.S. naval base crew" and so on in their written profiles. However, when a villain confronts the protagonist and attacks him while snarling "Milk's perfect for a schoolboy!", it is never a member of the U.S. military but always "sailors".

These "sailors" give Ryo Hazuki mocking looks and have a hostile attitude. Portrayed perhaps as an alternative to the U.S. military, they are infused with the kind of attitude that made Yokosuka "scary" and "inhospitable" in the past. This is because they are involved with every enemy in the story, such as letting the Chinese mafia working with Lan Di into the country illegally and being associated with the Mad Angels, a group terrorizing the harbor.

Old-Established Stores and Redevelopment in Yokosuka

"Yokosuka back in 1986? I couldn't pass through this area. I was too scared. I couldn't come into this restaurant either. Partly that was because, at the time, I was not used to foreigners".

The owner of the Honey Bee restaurant spoke about the era in which Shenmue is set. A long-established restaurant founded in 1968, it is said to be the model for the Funny Bear Burger stand in the game. The current owner took over from his predecessor about five years ago.

Like Ms. Furusaki, he says that Yokosuka used to have a "scary" image. But how did the owner, who professes to have been afraid of Yokosuka, come to take over Honey Bee? Here's what he had to say: "I think it's because the number of Japanese tourists has been increasing since the establishment of local specialties such as the Yokosuka Navy Burger. That's when the trend naturally started to change".

"To eat a Navy Burger, first press down to flatten it, then take off the bun and top it with ketchup and mustard," the owner explained, holding out a hamburger. This is the hearty way hamburgers are eaten at Honey Bee.

"There aren't as many foreigners around here as there used to be, but when the aircraft carrier [the USS Ronald Reagan, currently stationed at Yokosuka] comes back, it's always crowded. Especially at night, it's amazing".

Walking along Dobuita Street in real life, there was something about its ambience that made me feel different than the one in Shenmue. This may be a strange thing to say, but it felt more unreal to me than that of the game's virtual portrayal of everyday life.

The reason for this was the redevelopment of the city. Looking around, I could see newly-built condominiums near the shopping street. Looking a little farther away, I could even see an Aeon Mall being built. Towering above stood a high-rise hotel. The old townscape is blanketed by a crisp, well-maintained landscape.

Yokosuka has not been immune to the trend of redevelopment that many regional cities have undergone. The landscape looked as if CG models of condominiums and shopping malls had been embedded in Shenmue's Dobuita Street. The sense of reversal, with the video game being realistic and reality feeling like fiction occurs frequently when you walk along the real Dobuita Street.

"Did Yokosuka back then have a scary reputation? Actually, it used to be the city with the lowest number of crimes," says the owner of the Ippuku restaurant, who has been running the restaurant for more than 30 years and has seen Yokosuka change over the years.

"Yokosuka in 1986? Compared to then, Yokosuka has become much quieter. At one time, when the aircraft carrier came back to Yokosuka, the city was filled with U.S. soldiers, and you never knew what would happen next".
A corner of Dobuita Street 30 years ago. When the aircraft carrier came back, the town was filled with U.S. soldiers. (Photo: Ms. Koe Sato)

Why did it change to become how it is today? "Well, a lot of regulations were put in place: even the traffic around the U.S. base was regulated, and the flow of people changed around that time. Rules about drinking and so on also became stricter," the owner recalls. He says that nowadays the U.S. military personnel are subject to a curfew, with the curfew time being determined by rank.

"1986, you say? That's around when our store opened. It was pretty busy back then, but now there's a lot of competition and it's become a fierce battleground," said the owner of the Hanamatsu florist, thoughtfully. The store is located on the corner of the Otaki Meiten Building, with a number of different stores around.

The store is said to be the model for the Aida Flower Store, where the heroine Nozomi Harasaki works. The owner said, "There used to be a lot of customers, but with the passage of time, there aren't many of the old stores left. Business isn't easy."

He said that the old townscape and stores have disappeared. "Nowadays, the bars around here have been turned into so-called 'Philippine pubs', but there used to be ramen noodle shops and delicatessens - like what you'd call a supermarket today. There used to be all kinds of things".

The owner of the store then asked me, "How is it for video game stores?" and I could only reply: "It's a fiercely-competitive area where things can change completely over a few years".

"There used to be a game store nearby here, too, and it attracted a lot of young people. People who used to work there are still coming back to us as our customers".

One of the most memorable aspects of Shenmue is the Kurita Military Surplus store, which sells imported clothing from the U.S. and is operated by a military-looking Kurita-san. The store that served as its model is the military fashion store Kakita, where father and son work together.

'Thirty years ago? I wasn't even born then!" joked the gray-haired shopkeeper. He and his son have been living in Yokosuka all their lives. The contrast between the exuberant owner, who smoked e-cigarettes as he answered, and his quiet son, who sewed clothes as he talked, made the two of them seem much more like characters from a video game than Shenmue's Kurita-san.

When I told him that many people say that Yokosuka used to be scary, the owner replied, "Perhaps it seemed that way, for people who aren't from here. But when you live here, you don't feel that way".

In that case, was Yokosuka back then a city with surprisingly little crime? One being asked this question, the owner's son gave a wry smile and said, "Well, I don't know about that...!"

"No, it was crazy in the old days, with the SP (=Shore Patrol) patrolling the streets at night. Drunkards were immediately caught and put in a cell," the owner recalled. "The SP were different from what they are now. In the old days, their cars would patrol the city, and if you did something wrong, they would swoop in. If you were drunk, they would throw you into a transport van and take you away".

"It's quietened down completely now, right? When I was a little kid in the 80's, the streets were more messy and dirty. In a good sense," said the owner's son, reflecting on Yokosuka in those days.

"Some stores nowadays intentionally put up American style signs from the 70's and 80's, but back then, they used all sorts of grimy signs. They lent the store a unique atmosphere".
A street in Yokosuka (photo: Koe Sato)

"30 years ago, Yokosuka was alive!" the store owner says. Has redevelopment changed the nature of the city? "I suppose so," replies his son. "The redevelopment of the 1990's really changed it".

Shenmue: a World Set 3 Years After the Closure of the EM Club

During the interviews so far, one thing mentioned by several people was that the "EM Club" had a lot to do with the vitality of the city.

It was a place that was seized by the US military after the war. Originally built in the Meiji era (1868-1912) for those enlisted in the Navy, it was renamed the EM Club after the defeat in World War II and turned into a place for U.S. servicemen to gather. Inside, there was a playhouse, a movie theater, restaurants and bars, and a place where Japanese people worked as jazz musicians.

The EM Club ("EM" stood for "Enlisted Men") in the early 1980s.

It was also mentioned that if it had been preserved, depending on how it was operated it could have become a tourist attraction like the Red Brick Warehouses in Yokohama. 

The EM Club was a center of activity for the U.S. military in Japan around Dobuita Street, but it was returned to the Japanese government in October 1983. However, it was later abandoned. When people visited Yokosuka by train or car, the ruins would be the first thing they saw, so perhaps in part due to the scenery of the city being spoiled, the buildings were torn down.

The EM Club in 1986. (Photo: Ms. Koe Sato)

The Yokosuka of Shenmue is set three years after the return of the EM Club to Japan. When Ryo Hazuki lost his father, Yokosuka also began to lose its former townscape. Although the Dobuita Street in the game has been adapted and is a different version, if comparing to a real map the EM Club would have existed on the west side of the city, beyond the Hirata Tobacco store and the parking lot. Of course, it's a world where the presence of U.S. military personnel is not readily apparent, and there is also no sign of this abandoned building that was once a place of leisure.

The heart which had also made Dobuita Street lively had gone, and in the 1990s, redevelopment swept in. As the bustle of the U.S. military presence in Japan weakened, the nature of the city began to change. The loss of vitality forced some stores to change their business strategies, or to ride the subsequent economic bubble to survive.

So what now stands on the site of the demolished EM Club? To my surprise, it was the Mercure Hotel Yokosuka. Coincidentally, this was the place where I would be staying at the end of our field trip - a fitting coincidence. 

When the aircraft carrier returned to port, the old EM Club would fill with U.S. soldiers; and the modern-day Mercure Hotel is also often used by U.S. soldiers when going into town on short-term trips.

As night fell, we ended our tour with a visit to a bar. Since many U.S. servicemen frequent the bars on Dobuita Street, many of them have a pay-as-you-go system where you pay in cash each time you order a drink.

Many U.S. customers can be found inside the bars. The waitress explained that U.S. personnel don't like to be photographed and to please avoid doing so, and we waited for our drinks to be served.

Ms. Sato showed us an image on her smartphone of a photo she had taken in 1986, and talked about Yokosuka's past.

"My view is that, after the bubble economy, there was a desire to clean up the city. Then, in the 2000's, there was a lot of redevelopment as well".

Shenmue's Yokosuka depicted a "realistic" everyday life while blurring the U.S. military presence in Japan. In reality, however, U.S. servicemen are an inseparable part of this city that cannot be ignored.

However, as redevelopment and new regulations were implemented, and the city became cleaner, the once-strong sense of presence of U.S. personnel weakened, and the once-familiar scenery of the past was forgotten. That's the time when Shenmue created a sense of reversal between the real and the virtual. Many of the stores and locations linked to the Sacred Spot pilgrimage promotion hold memories of the bustling days of the EM Club at the town's center. They are places who know how things were before the redevelopment.

For anyone now making a pilgrimage to Dobuita Street will likely be able to feel this sense of reversal. It comes about due to multiple overlapping realities, and is something that only people who have played Shenmue can experience.

Source: IGN Japan (Japanese text)

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  1. "...where Japanese people worked as jazz musicians" - Could this be the origin (at least partially) for the various Jazz cassettes?
    Tracks such as 'Destiny' (my favourite piece of music from the whole saga) and 'Dandy Old Man' perfectly represent the moody nature of the first game, but there doesn't seem to exist an historical context for that specific genre to be featured...
    As I'm writing this, I come across an actual Jazz player by the name of 'Jackie Harris', same name as the one from 'Feel Tired Song':


    1. Yes, I think you're spot on in making the jazz music connection there. Apparently during the Occupation after WW2, the US Navy in Yokosuka helped to popularize jazz in the area. This blog post from someone who was on the base during the 1970s also makes an interesting read, and shows several of the jazz musician sculptures which are now dotted around Yokosuka.


  2. Also found this: