Gaming

Japan’s Video Game Bars Are In Danger

By July 9, 2018 No Comments

A string of arrests has put the future of Japan’s popular “video game bars” into serious doubt.

I press record. “Just by doing this interview,” I say, “to a certain degree you’re really putting a target on your back.” It’s important Matt Bloch understands this before we proceed, especially after the recent video game bar arrests in Japan.

“Yeah, that’s my main concern, and I’m wondering if there’s an upside to it—like, drawing attention to it,” Bloch says. “It’s at my own peril, I understand that. But I want to have this interview. Hopefully, it won’t come back to bite me in the ass.”

Bloch, the owner of a video game bar in Osaka, Japan called Space Station, is sitting across from me at a nearby chicken wing restaurant called Sauce Boss in Osaka’s “Ame-mura”—that is, “America town.” The district got its name in the 1960s for its plethora of Hawaiian shirt vendors. These days, the flower-patterned threads are long gone, replaced with hip, fashionable shops in a sort of simulacrum of the West. This is the youth district where I burnt through my early twenties in clubs, bars, and CD shops. It’s also where you go to find real American wings—not the subtle flavors of grilled Japanese tebayaki but big, breaded, deep-fried chicken parts doused in Buffalo or Bourbon BBQ. Everyone in Sauce Boss seems to be a foreigner, and the waitress speaks perfect English. For a moment, I forget I’m in Japan.

“Osaka City has the densest cluster of video game bars in the world,” says Bloch, ordering a vodka soda with lime. “The scene is bigger than in Tokyo. It’s a gaming mecca.”

I’m trying to remember how I know Matt Bloch. He’s always just kind of been around, at game events like BitSummit or Tokyo Game Show. Now in his early forties, he’s been in Japan since 2006. I do remember one year he was at the Tokyo Game Show in cosplay. Matt’s a wiry guy, and he made an excellent Luigi. But until tonight, I’d never been to his bar.

Bright signs on the street advertise the “video game bar,” Space Station.
Photo: Brian Ashcraft (Kotaku)

The “video game bar,” a small drinking establishment that’s decorated with video game memorabilia and usually full of games and consoles for the patrons to play, has become quite popular in Japan over the last decade. Japan’s liquor laws are fairly lax in this regard, making it quite easy for would-be bartenders to open up shop, leading to a staggering number of tiny bars scattered around the country. One of the oldest, called 16Shots, opened in Tokyo in 2006; another called A-Button, the first of its kind in Tokyo’s geek district of Akihabara, followed in 2007. The mid-2000s were when kids who grew up with the Nintendo Famicom were becoming old enough to drink, and game bars were more than a place where friends and co-workers could meet to down cold Kirins and Suntory highballs. They also served shots of nostalgia, served neat, letting their patrons re-live childhood memories in a grown-up setting.

Bloch’s bar Space Station wasn’t the first video game bar in Osaka—that honor goes to Game Bar Continue, which opened in 2008. Space Station, however, was the city’s third video game bar when it opened on April 26, 2011. That was before competitors started popping up like mushrooms all over Shinsaibashi. Bloch said he stopped keeping track after the number of video game bars reached two dozen. That was two years ago. Things are different now.

Space Station, like Sauce Boss, is popular with expats and tourists. It has a high TripAdvisor ranking and loads of positive Google reviews. “Every year is better than the previous,” Bloch says of the bar’s fortunes.

But he doesn’t know how long that trend will continue, given recent events.

Two customers play a video game at Space Station.
Photo: Brian Ashcraft (Kotaku)

Osaka’s gaming scene was turned upside down over a week ago when there were multiple arrests at video game bars in neighboring prefectures. Two owners were arrested in Kyoto and two more were arrested in Hyogo, and charged with violating the Japanese Copyright Act—specifically, the game publishers’ jouei-ken (上映権), or screening rights. By showing the games in a public setting, the bars were breaking the law.

Bloch was in his Osaka apartment, meditating, when he got a Facebook message from a friend letting him know about the arrests. What he saw shocked him, and he started to rationalize that it wouldn’t happen to him. “I started thinking all sorts of things to maintain a sense of security, even if it was a false sense,” he said. He wanted to believe that it was only the chain bars, which stand out with flashy promotions, that were being targeted. If Japan’s Association of Copyright for Computer Software was just going after the big companies, smaller operations like Space Station could continue to fly under the radar.

Or so Bloch thought. But as he learned more about which bars were cracked down on, his hopes turned to fears. “I was hoping that those four bars were run by the same company, but that sense of security was removed from me when I found out that, no, the two in Kyoto are independent of each other, and they’re both bigger than Space Station, but not by much.” The two in Kobe were a chain, so that threw out any pattern that seemed to be emerging. “I feel less secure because of that.”

To be honest, I told Bloch, I was shocked when I saw those video game bar owners were arrested. “So was I,” he said. “We all were. It was unprecedented.”

A wall of Famicom games on display at the video game bar Continue, in Osaka.
Photo: Brian Ashcraft (Kotaku)

According to a post on the Association of Copyright for Computer Software’s website, the game bars’ crime was letting customers play home video game consoles in their establishments without getting consent from the game publishers. Since 2011, the ACCS has been sending warning letters to video game bars to end the practice. This year, the organization and game publishers released a joint statement reiterating their desire to stop these places from offering playable consoles.

Importantly, the ACCS’s action and the subsequent arrests didn’t specifically reference the old games, like Famicom cartridges, that fill up many games bars. Instead, the complaints centered around hot new games. The post on the ACCS’s website calls out Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Monster Hunter: World, and Splatoon 2 among just a few others, and is jointly signed by Nintendo, Sony, Sega, Konami, Bandai Namco, and Capcom.

One location in Kyoto had over 900 games, while the raid game bar in Kyoto had 200 games confiscated. The two in Hyogo had around 100 games each.

make some suggestions. The rest of the spirits and brews seem okay, but people are clearly not coming here to drink rare or expensive alcohol. But are they only coming here to place old console games? I have to wonder if Matt is selling Space Station short.

“I just went to Continue, and it was dead,” says a customer named Jonas. He’s in IT, been here in Japan for three months, and says he’ll probably end up working in Tokyo. “I wanted to come here while I still could.”

That’s a rather macabre thing to say, I think, before asking Jonas if he would come to Space Station if it didn’t have any console games and was just packed with indie games.

“Definitely,” he says as he orders a Baileys with milk, on ice. “I’m not just coming here for the games, because I have all these games at home. I’m here to communicate with others who also like video games.”

That’s the point of this bar. I think about all the bars I like, and while an impressive line-up of spirits might get me in the door, I often come back because I like the people who run the place, the atmosphere they’ve created, and the other people who frequent the place. More customers are starting to file in. The place is starting to get packed, so I excuse myself, thanking Matt for making time for the interview.

“Go see my friend’s place, Encount,” Matt says when I head out.

It’s still early when I leave Space Station that night, but it’s Friday. The streets are packed and the weather is perfect for going out. Next week, the disgustingly hot Osaka summer will set in. Let’s enjoy these last few cool evenings. Encount is up the street, down a gloomy back corridor. It’s around eight o’clock, so the bar should be open.

It’s not. Odd.

Instead, I head over to Continue, Osaka’s oldest game bar, the one Jonas just called “dead.” The sign out front lists it as a “cafe bar,” making no mention of video games. But the Famicom heartbeat motif and retro RPG-style font clues in the rest. Ditto for the 8-bit Mario and yellow, question-marked boxes surrounding the 5th-floor elevator button. I’ve found the place.

A Nintendo 64 console at Space Station.
Photo: Brian Ashcraft (Kotaku)

“Table for one?” I’m asked in Japanese as I step off the elevator. The bar is quiet. I don’t think any game-related background music is playing, as it usually is in these haunts. At least, I can’t hear it. I look at the bar. All the monitors and consoles have been removed, leaving telltale holes in the clutter. There are three customers: two are on a date, it seems, and the third is not and has his nose buried deep in a Dragon Quest XI strategy guide. The other two talk about their favorite GameCube games. If you cannot play games, you might as well read or talk about them.

I ask the bartender if he’s willing to talk to me about the recent arrests. He seems like an affable guy and agrees, but just wants to make it clear that he doesn’t own the bar and can only give his personal opinion on the matter. “I can’t speak for the bar,” he says. Roger that.

a note posted by Matt Bloch on Facebook.

“It is with abject horror that we are closing Space Station for an indeterminate length of time while the bar undergoes restructuring,” it read. “This decision comes in the wake of news concerning the arrests of individuals and the closure of video game bars in the region over issues of copyright infringement.”

“Apologies for the inconvenience, especially to those who made the bar part of their travel plans.”

I shoot him an instant message. For now, Matt says he’s only taking out the newer consoles, everything from the original Wii to the present, and leaving the old stuff. But if he’s told to remove the other consoles, he will, he said. When he re-opens, the rest of what he’ll be offering are PC games.

I try to pin down Bloch, asking him what his next move is. I get the feeling he doesn’t quite know. Or maybe he doesn’t quite want to say.

“One can play it completely safe, as you suggested, or play probabilities, even in a case where you’re dealing with so many unknowns that you can’t calculate probabilities,” he messages me. “Japan is where I want to be, but not without that bar.”

I am reminded of something Bloch said the other night, about how he’d feel if the copyright authorities close in. “I’d be so glad it was after I’d had the place opened for eight years,” he said. “It would have been a good run.”

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