The Real Japan Behind Persona 5by Elliot Gay,
Persona 5 opens with a bizarre bit of onscreen text telling the player that “This story is a work of fiction.” This disclaimer is also voiced, asserting that any similarities to real people are simply incidental as seemingly a part of the proper intro to the game. At the end of it all, the voice asks you to agree with the statement before letting you progress. It's a strange moment that Persona 5 never returns to, at least not directly, and I imagine a lot of English-language players were left wondering what the point of it was. These kinds of disclaimers are uncommon enough in most games, but the fact that it's presented as a part of the experience makes it somewhat mystifying. The reality of its presence, however, deliberately highlights how much of Persona 5 is based on actual Japanese events and politics.
That wasn't always meant to be the case. Before 2011's Tohoku earthquake, Persona 5 was set to be about backpacking around the world. Producer Katsura Hashino explained in a 4Gamer interview that after the earthquake hit, he and the team felt that instead of looking outward, the game needed to be more introspective. The entirety of Japan was looking inward, trying to figure out how to change things. This inspiration permeates Persona 5 both thematically and in terms of its cast of villains. There are a handful of story arcs in the game, and at the center of each of them is a primary antagonist. The protagonists aim to steal the hearts of these villains because of the crimes they've committed against the innocent. These crimes range from physical and sexual abuse to extortion to crooked politics. Ultimately, each of these villains ends up having ties to the main final big-bad, not unlike an anime series plot.
Compared to the antagonists of Persona 3 and 4, this game's gallery of bad guys seem unimpressive on paper. The villainy is strictly grounded in reality (save for some late-game elements), making it different from the world-ending monsters of P3 or the magic TV antics of P4. Ironically, Persona 5 ends up a much darker game than its two predecessors because of the way it tackles Japanese news headlines. Take, for example, the first arc's handling of what would appear to be similar real-world incidents.
The villain of the first arc, volleyball coach Kamoshida, physically (and sexually) abuses his players, eventually forcing one girl, Shiho, to attempt suicide. The young ace survives the fall, but she's left emotionally and physically scarred, and the school covers for Kamoshida because of the success he's brought the volleyball team. Even the students themselves are afraid to take any action, knowing that it would be fruitless. Eventually, the Phantom Thieves come to the rescue, forcing Kamoshida to admit his crimes and be judged by the full extent of the law. Unfortunately, the real world isn't quite so just.
In 2012, a 17-year-old high school student in Osaka committed suicide at home. The young man was the captain of the basketball club, and he had taken his own life as a result of the beatings he received from then-coach Hajime Komura. Komura had apparently beaten him “around a dozen times as a punishment for mistakes he made during training matches.” In trial, Komura would eventually admit to the abuse, though he claimed that he never thought the student would go so far as to take his own life. During the trial, the city of Osaka attempted to argue that Komura's abuse had nothing to do with the young man's suicide. The courts ultimately found him guilty of assault, receiving a sentence of one year in prison, suspended for three years. If that seems like a slap on the wrist, that's because it unfortunately was.
This whole case prompted the education ministry to investigate corporal punishment in schools across Japan, leading to a horrifying discovery: almost 7,000 teachers across 4,000+ schools around the country had physically abused over 14,000 students. Physical abuse was technically determined illegal after WWII, but it's still a very real problem. I spent five years working as a junior high school teacher, and even in that short period of time, I witnessed an unfortunate number of these kinds of incidents.
In Persona 5, even when Kamoshida's indiscretions become nearly impossible to hide, his co-workers and the principal all turn the other cheek. Letting him admit to his crimes would reflect poorly on the school, so it's within their best interest to try and take care of the problem internally. This is by no means rare in reality. In the Osaka case, Komura got off with a slap on the wrist, but sometimes these crimes go unpunished altogether. In 2015, a teacher in Sasebo was found guilty of physically and verbally abusing 12 students in a club, yet was punished with just one month of docked pay.
Persona 5's stance, which can seem almost comical, is that adults are incapable of taking care of the problem and can't be trusted. While that's obviously a generalization, reality has proven that the education ministry is still failing its students in some key ways. Atlus's game postures that in order for real change to happen, young people need to take control of their own lives and make their voices heard, because nobody else will. Is this a naive stance to take? Sure, in some ways, but it's still important nonetheless.
The fifth arc in Persona 5 revolves around Okumura Foods, a giant corporation that's rumored to be one of Japan's “black companies.” In Japan, black company is a term used to refer to an exploitative workplace. Kunikazu Okumura is the president of the in-game company, and despite his incredible success in the business world, he views his employees as nothing but replaceable cogs in his giant machine. To illustrate this, they're represented in his palace by toy-robot-like enemies. Due to his status and political ties, however, he's completely untouchable by the law. The Phantom Thieves target and eventually bring him down by stealing his heart.
Black companies are unfortunately a very real problem, one without a clear solution. It's so bad that there's a specific Japanese term used to describe fatalities that can be directly tied to the issue: karoshi (過労死). Karoshi can more or less be translated as death resulting from work-related stress or fatigue. In 2016, Dentsu Inc. (an advertising giant) was given the award for “Most Evil Corporation of the Year.” Pushing some of its employees to do as much as 200 hours of overtime work per month, along with its discriminatory and abusive work culture, earned it this award, but that didn't mean much in the long run. The company is still doing what it does, and they show no signs of changing their poor practices as long as they're profitable.
Persona 5's handling of this arc is a bit simpler than earlier portions of the game, primarily because there's a disconnect between the teenage protagonists and Okumura Foods, effectively the adult world. What we do see is that Okumura Foods' reputation is common knowledge, even among the youth population. Despite all that, there's no real movement on the police's end to right things, and the world just goes about its business.
This is a common theme throughout Persona 5 when it comes to its antagonists: for all the wrongdoing they commit, the average joe will eventually move on and stop caring because that's the status quo. By the end of the game, when the protagonist and his friends are driving off into the sunset, the world is still turning. Atrocities are still being committed and people are still turning the other cheek. The world isn't fixed, but maybe, just maybe, if folks start to pay attention and call things out when they happen, the status quo can be changed. This is the optimism that Persona 5 ends on.
There are plenty more direct and indirect references to real-world events in Persona 5, and the above examples are simply the tip of the iceberg. Atlus's latest giant RPG wears its themes on its sleeve, and while it doesn't offer a proper, applicable fix to Japan's biggest societal problems, it's amazing that a big game like this is willing to criticize these things in such a public way. These kinds of tentpole releases are rarely so direct in their criticism. In a post 2011 tsunami Japan, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if we see more of this kind of commentary going forward. If you're at all interested in digging up more of Persona 5's influences, I highly recommend looking into taibatsu, the lost decade, black companies, and current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
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