Last month’s article about the Hobonichi Planner generated a lot of interest, and both PingMag and the Hobonichi office have received all sorts of wonderful emails and messages from around the world. Among them, a lot of people have expressed surprise that something as simple as a day planner would create such a buzz in the first place. Obviously there is no simple answer to why something becomes a hit, but there are a few reasons for the Hobonichi Planner’s popularity that may not be so obvious to a non-Japanese audience.
Outside of Japan, if Shigesato Itoi’s name is known at all, it is as the creator of the video game EarthBound (or the Mother series in Japan). But in fact, Itoi is not a game creator by profession. Actually, his main occupation is copywriter, and over the years he has created some of the most famous advertising copy in Japan. Then in 1998, he set up his own company, the Tokyo Itoi Shigesato Office, and started publishing the online magazine portal Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shimbun — or Hobonichi.
Back in 1998, very few people thought it possible to run independent online media as a successful business. But Hobonichi has lasted and has in fact grown to be one of the most popular websites in Japan, with the company itself one of the liveliest and most unusual. With many different projects covering all sorts of diverse areas and ideas, the core of Hobonichi is text and articles, and as a copywriter, Itoi’s main tools are, naturally, words and language — Japanese language, of course. Which means that up until now, the audience has been almost entirely in Japan.
There is just one foreigner working at the Hobonichi office. Lindsay Nelson grew up in Wisconsin, but a chance encounter with EarthBound when she was just ten years old led to a fascination with Japan, and eventually a job working for the very man that created the game she loved so much. I sat down with Lindsay, and Hobonichi’s Yasuhiro Nagata, to find out more.
When did you first encounter Mother (EarthBound)?
Lindsay Nelson (LN): My first contact with EarthBound was when it went on sale in America in 1995, when I was ten years old. I’d played video games before, but EarthBound was the first one I really got into.
Yasuhiro Nagata (YN): The first Mother game was released in Japan in 1989 for the Famicom [called the Nintendo Entertainment System overseas]. This was translated and localized, but never released overseas. Mother 2 then came out on the Super Famicom [SNES] in 1994 and an English-language version, re-titled EarthBound, was released in America in 1995. So this all started when you played EarthBound, right?
LN: Yes, it all started when I was ten.
And it was the first video game you got hooked on?
LN: I’d played other games like Tetris before, but yes, this was the first.
How did you first discover EarthBound?
LN: I first saw the game when my cousin rented it and was playing it at our grandmother’s house shortly after it’d been released. I was intrigued by the American scenery in the game, and that’s what pulled me in. I think I asked Santa for it and got it for Christmas later that year.
So how did you go from there to the Hobonichi Techo?
LN: I first found the Hobonichi website in 2006 when they released a line of t-shirts for Mother 3. I could read Japanese by that time, so I also discovered the Hobonichi Techo. There was the same Itoi-ness as Earthbound in the Hobonichi website content. It had the same sort of atmosphere, so naturally, I liked what I saw. It’s hard to explain exactly what it is that’s similar, but I get the sense that Itoi does whatever the heck he wants, and I liked that.
And from there you went on to help with the Hobonichi Planner, the English-language edition of the Hobonichi Techo?
LN: When I came to Japan in 2009 for work, I wanted to know what else Itoi had worked on, so I did a bit of research and found this book of short stories called ‘Let’s Meet in a Dream’. It was super interesting. EarthBound fans naturally become fans of Shigesato Itoi, so I thought the fans would find it interesting, too. I translated my favorite story from the book into English, and then wrote a letter to Hobonichi asking for permission to release it in America.
Hobonichi Staff: The English translation was very good. It superbly reproduced the feeling of the original Japanese. We thought it was great. Though at the time we didn’t have any plans at all for doing something in English, we thought it wouldn’t hurt to meet once. So we replied to Lindsay and said that publication might be tricky but asked if she’d like to come in and meet us. That was in 2010.
LN: And I still feel the same now. I want to translate Itoi’s writing into English because it’s just so interesting.
Sorry for asking it like this — but just what kind of game is EarthBound?
YN:In the wake of Dragon Quest, at the time tended to be set in the Middle Ages where players would fight monsters with swords and magic. In EarthBound, though, magic was replaced with psychic powers, and players used baseball bats rather than swords. The world felt very much like modern America. And every part of the game utilized Itoi’s tastes, so it was very unique.
LN: Since it was set in America, I didn’t know it was actually from Japan when I first played it. I finally realized at the end who made the game when the credits appeared. [Laughs] I couldn’t understand the foreign names on the screen, and it seemed kind of strange.
You didn’t know it was Japanese until the end?
LN: Right. It was all so naturally American that I thought it was an American game.
LN: There were other role-playing games like Final Fantasy, but as a ten-year-old girl, they didn’t really interest me. The main characters in EarthBound were children my age, so I could empathize with them. I’ve made friends with many fans of the game through the internet, and many of them have creative careers now, which seems to be a common trait among EarthBound fans. Some work as film directors, designers or novelists.
How did EarthBound stand among other Japanese RPGs at the time?
YN: It was a really alternative game. The trend at the time involved games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. EarthBound wasn’t deliberately being different for the sake of being different, but instead just had this purely different taste than the other games. It was very unique, but not narrow, and was rather open and expansive — it was really odd.
LN: Yes. It was weird, but I thought it was funny. Some things are weird, but not funny. EarthBound managed both. I’m sure it also had to do with the great localization. It was so natural, you wouldn’t even know it was foreign.
YN: Yes, and that’s really impressive, because Itoi’s strangeness is condensed into the text. He wrote almost all of the game script himself. Itoi doesn’t have many works in which he’s the sole author. That’s why I think EarthBound is the best example of his character expressed so undiluted in a single work.
In what way is Shigesato Itoi’s character present in EarthBound?
YN: In a word, the recklessness. There are sentimental bits, and really stupid bits — the reckless indulgence of a single man, with all of his character poured unfiltered into the game. For example, at one point the hero goes down into this underground world where there are dinosaurs. Itoi wanted the dinosaurs to be really big, but the engineers said they couldn’t make the graphics so huge because it was more than the programming could handle. Then Itoi had an idea to shrink the characters. So there’s a point in the game where there are tiny little characters crawling around.
YN: People who write scripts for a living or make games can’t come up with this kind of stuff. In a way, it’s because he isn’t someone who makes video games that he’s able to have these reckless inspirations.
It’s like this for the Hobonichi Planner, too. Does EarthBound share traits with Itoi’s other work?
YN: Yes. They’re both reckless. [Laughs] To pick a recent example, Hobonichi now has an office up north in Kesennuma, Miyagi, but this was less a case of “What shall we do in Kesennuma?” as just “We’re gonna start an office in Kesennuma!”
Itoi first went up there in early January. He brought it up internally in late September, and said we’d open the office on November 1st. [Laughs] We were flabbergasted. Any ordinary company would have a plan for what to do!
Yes, that’s right. Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shimbun itself could be considered a reckless project in a way. When it first launched, people thought it would be impossible to make a business from just an online publication. Lindsay, right now you are involved with making the English-language edition of the Hobonichi Techo, the Hobonichi Planner. But was your interest in Japan sparked just by EarthBound or were there other things?
LN: It was mostly video games and anime. I first wanted to study Japanese in junior high school, when Pokemon had just come out and Sailor Moon was airing on television. Sailor Moon had a very Japanese feel — I could see Japanese schools and neighborhoods and the school uniforms, and this made me think Japan was an interesting place.
There are also animation shows and video games in America, though. What was it about the Japanese ones that attracted you?
LN: I suppose the stories are really good. When I was a child, other than video games, all I did was read books and write stories. Ever since I could hold a pen, I was writing stories. I love stories and language, and Japanese stories are fascinating. There’s a unique depth to them.
Stories in America aren’t as popular unless they’re happy. But in Japan, there’s a tragic side to the stories, which contain all sorts of emotions. It’s not all just happy; they’ve got really complicated feelings to them, and I really like that.
With American animation especially, it’s all just happy stories, and there’s not as much fighting. But I liked the danger behind Pokemon and Sailor Moon.
Yes, that’s right. No one argues. But fights between friends are fundamental to Japanese anime, aren’t they? More so than enemies, fighting between friends is a fundamental component of the story. In the end they make up, but it’s important that they first fight.
LN: Yes, it’s realistic.
YN: But then in America, video games aimed at a slightly older audience have violence and realism so strong that it’s actually become a problem.
For children, they don’t use the full palette of human emotions. It’s just a single kind of joy, like from winning, finding something, being rescued and so on. But in Japan’s case, it’s more complicated. It’s less about the victory, and there are complex emotions. That is very Japanese, isn’t it?
LN: In EarthBound, the character Jeff is around twelve years old, but his father isn’t around. He finally reunites with his father, who flippantly tells him, “Let’s get together again in ten years or so,” and they part ways once again. I found it incredible when I really thought about it. I didn’t really read into these things too deeply when I was a child, but as an adult, I can see how different these complicated relationships are from American works. This really impressed me.
YN: There are parts where friends say goodbye to each other, and where characters leave their parents and grow up apart from them. The main character in EarthBound also has a pretty strange set-up. He has a mother and a sister, but his father doesn’t live at home. The father never appears throughout the whole game, but he phones the protagonist. Itoi later told me in an interview that he had gotten divorced and was watching over his child from afar, which was a relationship that naturally made its way into the game. I think EarthBound is a peculiar video game in both America and Japan because it’s so crammed with Itoi’s inner workings and complex personality. No doubt Lindsay could see this even when she was ten.
Lastly, as many of PingMag’s readers are really looking forward to it, could you tell us about the plans for the English-language version of the Hobonichi Techo, the Hobonichi Planner?
LN: Right now I’m working on the Hobonichi Planner, translating for the Hobonichi website and online store, and soon I’ll be working on marketing and spreading the word about the planner. I think other people will come to enjoy the planner through the same process that I did, first being a fan of EarthBound, then Shigesato Itoi, and then the Hobonichi Planner, so I’d like to base marketing off of my own experiences.
Lindsay Nelson and Yasuhiro Nagata, thank you!