Exploring community through a video game


A ‘LOVE LETTER’ IN VIDEO GAME FORMAT ­— ‘J-Town: A Visual Novel’ explores a fictionalized but familiar modern Japantown community. screenshot

A ‘LOVE LETTER’ IN VIDEO GAME FORMAT ­— ‘J-Town: A Visual Novel’ explores a fictionalized but familiar modern Japantown community. screenshot

There’s now a fun and easy way to visit Japantown, and you can do it from the comfort of your own home without having to wear a set of silly $3,500 VR goggles to do it.

“J-Town: A Visual Novel” delves into the present state of the Japanese American experience, particularly for those involved in one of the three historic Japantowns, interpreted by two former interns of the Nikkei Community Internship with a penchant for video games.

Iszac Gaton of San Jose asked Taylor Weik of Pasadena, Calif. if they could work together on the game in late 2021 during the height of the pandemic.

“So, when I decided the game was going to be about Japanese American culture and history and community, partially I knew that I couldn’t write it as well as someone else in the community could. And I had known Taylor for a few years at that point,” Gaton said.

Gaton, a 2015 Nikkei Community Internship intern, had met Weik who joined the internship program in 2017. Both had stayed on as coordinators and continued to be involved in the community. Gaton interned with a “charcuterie-like” assortment of San Jose Japantown organizations and Weik interned for Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment before working for two years with Little Tokyo-based Kizuna.

Weik, a writer focusing on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, said she based most of the writing for the game off of the years she spent in the Little Tokyo community while working for Kizuna.

“So when Iszac and I market this game, whether it’s on our Steam page or social media accounts, we’ve been calling it ‘a love letter to our Japantowns.’ So I think it all stems from this huge love and appreciation we have for our Japantowns,” the game’s co-director told the Nichi Bei News.

The fictional stories seem familiar in Gaton and Weik’s amalgamation of the three historic Japantowns in San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles. There are the cultural institutions, such as museums dedicated to the wartime incarceration, community groups volunteering to aid seniors and even a family-owned manju shop.

The game, made in Ren’Py, a commonly used platform for game developers to tell interactive stories through text and static images, puts the player in the shoes of someone totally new to the ethnic enclave. An obtuse billionaire looking to move into the neighborhood to build his newest K-Pop ramen shop for anime fans has hired the player to scope out the neighborhood to find a potential property he can buy out. The player instead finds a warm and inviting community that is wise to the gentrifying billionaire’s ploy.


“I think it’s a good introductory point to the community, with its discussion of food, basketball, senior centers, etc. I appreciated that the game highlighted diversity within the community, including Shin-Nikkei folks and non-Japanese Americans,” Jeremy Chan, a San Francisco Japantown community member who backed the game via Kickstarter, said in an e-mail.

While he said the dialogue was a little cheesy at times, the game was able to convey nuance with regard to the Japanese American community’s relationship to anime and pop culture, and delves into contemporary concerns with gentrification.

“So, when I came up with the idea originally, I had two audiences in mind. The first was the people who may never get to visit a Japantown and learn about the culture and community that exists within them. … The second is the people within these communities who can hopefully see themselves and relate to the stories that we’re telling,” Gaton said, acknowledging not all Japanese Americans can easily visit the historic Japantowns.

“We also wanted to make this story broad enough to where people from other ethnic neighborhoods that are going through some of the same issues could also relate to it,” Weik said. “And we have Sawtelle in West L.A., … (a)nd there’s Japanese American communities within Seattle as well. So we tried to make our J-Town as relatable as possible and not super tied to one neighborhood.”

Kazuma Hashimoto, a Los Angeles-based cultural consultant and media critic, also noted the game’s potential to reach a wider audience after playing the game at the request of the Nichi Bei News.

“I think it is very important for a wider audience to play this game, especially as Little Tokyo has become increasingly gentrified. Having visited recently, it feels a bit sad to see some of the older businesses having gone out of business or even priced out of their original locations. It’s actually a really big fear that Little Tokyo may not exist to the same capacity that it used to in the very near future, especially as even more businesses are closing due to rising rent costs. And I think if a wider audience understood the significance of the location, outside of it’s Japaneseness (e.g. Cool Japan), it would help reinforce why this space is important to Japanese Americans and why it’s needed,” he wrote.

Leianne Lamb, president of Contemporary Asian Theatre Scene, meanwhile noted the game’s depiction of the J-Town Peace Collective, a team of volunteers who help out local senior organizations and organize out of a local coffee shop.

“It pulls us out of the model minority side, and puts us into more of a stronger speaking out voice and that’s really critical at this stage when our whole identity is evolving and in getting stronger,” Lamb, whose organization was one of the executive producers of the game, said.

Lamb said that depiction, combined with using video games to engage younger generations, could serve as an effective educational tool, to which Gaton and Weik said is in the works.

“I would love to bring this game to different organizations and educational programs, because we’re releasing it for free,” Gaton said. The game is available on Valve Corporation’s digital distribution system Steam. “I’d love for more people and organizations, if they’re interested in working with us, to just use this as a tool to spread what we love about the community and educate people even further.”

For more information about “J-Town: A Visual Novel,” including to download the game for free, visit https://jtownvn.carrd.co.

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