Doug's Column: Realizing That I Live in Animal Crossing

Pictures by Doug Bonham, or taken from とびだせ どうぶつの森, aka Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Pictures by Doug Bonham, or taken from とびだせ どうぶつの森, aka Animal Crossing: New Leaf

"This seems so familiar..."

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the second title in the series I’ve played. Previously, I bought Animal Crossing: Wild World for Nintendo DS and enjoyed the mechanics before succumbing to the must-check-in-every-day guilt trip my town’s denizens put me through. Now I have AC:NL, and while the gameplay’s been tuned to lessen that effect (while adding a number of other changes and improvements), I’ve also moved forward in my life and have more experiences which shape my appreciation of the game. And from the first time I turned New Leaf on, I realized I didn’t necessarily even need the game -- I lived in an Animal Crossing town already.

The steamy summer festival, featuring fireworks, is an institution in Japan -- even in Tokyo. All that's missing in AC:NL is the takoyaki stand.
The steamy summer festival, featuring fireworks, is an institution in Japan -- even in Tokyo. All that's missing in AC:NL is the takoyaki stand.

I moved to Japan two years ago. But not the Japan you’d see in Lost in Translation — the bustling city, the neon, the massed herds crossing streets in some of the highest-end districts in the world. Nope. I flew further south, away from the urban bustle of Tokyo, waved past the second city of Osaka, and touched down in Nagasaki -- a place most famous for being the final word of the Pacific chapter of World War II. But I don’t live in the city; no, I live in a small town of about 9,000 (mostly older) citizens. And from the moment I fired up Animal Crossing, I recognized much that I see every day.

That first train ride your resident takes, where you fill in your name, likes and dislikes, and more? Japan may be famous for the shinkansen bullet trains but those two-car wanman trains are a staple of the countryside. The train line running through town with the drop-down safety gates happens to run near my apartment.

The train line running through town.
The train line running through town.

There’s plenty more things that are distinctly Japanese in their manner, too. The way buildings are blanketed from view while being renovated is a common sight, even for skyscrapers in cities. The style of the shops -- from the rustic recycle shop to the Nooklings’ convenience store- and supermarket-inspired locations -- all would be familiar to Japanese players. Of course the post office has the ATM, because it’s true that Japan Post is the largest national bank in the country. Each town’s blend of mountains, trees, rivers, greenery, and the beach also is a staple of Japan -- only one prefecture out of 47 in the country is landlocked, after all. Everybody fishes, because even teenagers can be found in the countryside with rod and reel on the train in the summertime. And that’s not even mentioning the thrum of cicadas! Coming from the Pacific Northwest, I’d never heard insects like that before arriving in Nagasaki.

"By the way...your house right now, it's a little small, isn't it?" Other than the fact that the teninsan are a raccoon and an otter, this is an accurate depiction of consumer life in Japan.
"By the way...your house right now, it's a little small, isn't it?" Other than the fact that the teninsan are a raccoon and an otter, this is an accurate depiction of consumer life in Japan.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf could take place in any small town in any corner of Japan, and that’s kind of the point -- it’s your little personal Japanese small town, even if you’re stuck in the concrete jungle of Tokyo. Maybe that’s why it’s so popular -- city folk can live out the bucolic, romanticized Japanese childhood existence by way of their avatar.

Ah, the wonderful inaka -- or Japanese countryside.
Ah, the wonderful inaka -- or Japanese countryside.

What surprised me most was that this extends to the other characters, too. Isabelle (known as Shizune in the Japanese version), your assistant in the town office, is an almost-too-real imitation of the kind of young women who work in administration roles in this country: Kind, sharp, and supportive, tripping all over themselves to get things done, but also sweet and in desperate need of a vacation (preferably to a tropical island). Tortimer is the cheerful older dude who will gladly try to drink you under the table and who speaks in incomprehensible Japanese. Tom Nook is ever the wheeling-dealing store owner, who gives you honorifics only so much as to sell you something more. The Parkers are the husband-wife shop-owners just down the street, and Kappy and his family of Kappas on the island are, too. And all of your town denizens are the colorful characters you run into in all walks of life. Really, the only thing that’s missing is a ramen shop that plays a hearty “Irasshaimase!” soundbite when you enter.

Japan is famed for its politeness, formality, and the detachment that comes with that combination. Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine that the man rigidly speaking throughout a school assembly is the same one who shared beers and talked about Apple products with you a few weeks prior. Or that the same colleagues you work with would eventually wear a tie on their head while singing some mid-80s Japanese bubble pop at the nijikai, the famed "second party" where workplace bonds are secured. But the layers of humanity that lie beneath are what you see once the formal introductions are over, and the way your Animal Crossing town’s neighbors become friendlier and friendlier echoes how ties form in my own personal experience. I’m happy to see how popular the game and the series has become in America, because it so matches the life I’ve found in Japan that I enjoy, too.

For more of Doug's images from the Japanese countryside, check out this Flickr link, or all of his photos at flickr.com/photos/dougbonham