As Final Fantasy 16 boss Naoki Yoshida calls it “discriminatory”, is it time to drop the term ‘JRPG’?


Probably the most interesting thing to come out of Final Fantasy 16 previews yesterday wasn’t anything to do with the game. It was a single off-the-cuff remark from the game’s producer, Naoki Yoshida – a comment inspired by a single word from an interviewer that has triggered some intense debate online.

From a single spark, will the land ignite. A new shadow rises to fall upon the Dominants, painting their destinies black as night.

Naoki Yoshida (left) and Final Fantasy 16 protagonist, Clive (right).

Yoshida doesn’t like the term ‘JRPG’, meaning Japanese RPG – and goes on to explain that the first time he heard it, he felt it was a “discriminatory term.”

The comments were made by Yoshida, now one of Japan’s most prominent and important creators, in an interview that forms part of YouTuber SkillUp’s excellent FF16 preview. The comments were picked up in text by RPG Site, and pretty quickly it became a hot topic of conversation.

Yoshida’s comments were inspired by SkillUp asking him and the top creative team on FF16 if they felt the ‘JRPG genre’ hadn’t advanced in the same way as action games have in recent times. In my mind’s eye, I can imagine how Yoshida looked at this moment – I’ve interviewed him over 10 times and he has this wince he does when he doesn’t particularly like a line of questioning.

So, he probably pulled that face, spoke for a while in Japanese, and then Western translation lead for both FF14 and FF16 Michael Christopher Koji Fox, interpreting, offered the following:

“One thing he wants to get across is that when we create games, we don’t go into them thinking we are creating JRPGs, we are just creating RPGs. The term JRPG is used by western media rather than users and media in Japan.”

“This is going to depend on who you ask, but there was a time when this term first appeared 15 years ago, and for us as developers the first time we heard it, it was like a discriminatory term. As though we were being made fun of for creating these games, and so for some developers the term JRPG can be something that will maybe trigger bad feelings because of what it was in the past. It wasn’t a compliment to a lot of developers in Japan.”

“We understand that recently, JRPG has better connotations and it’s being used as a positive, but we still remember the time when it was used as a negative.”

Final Fantasy 16 takes place in the world of Valisthea.

Yoshida goes on to also note that the definition of JRPG is often something that basically describes Final Fantasy 7 – placing the this sub-genre into compartmentalized constraints that he feels simply doesn’t make sense.

“We were going in to create an RPG, but to be compartmentalized, they felt was was discriminatory,” Fox explains of Yoshida’s comments.

It’s an interesting comment, right? It’s food for thought, and as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how to categorize and explain the differences between numerous types of role-playing games for discovery purposes if nothing else, it really does give me pause.

I absolutely understand where Yoshida is coming from. People of a certain age will remember a time when there was a genuinely nasty streak in Western games development and media towards Japanese games that, one could easily argue, was flat-out racist.

I remember it acutely, owning a website dedicated to the RPG genre. We were covering Mass Effect and Skryim and such too, of course, but a huge amount of that site’s coverage was still dedicated to RPGs out of Japan. And it was a rough time for the genre.

With that rough time came the JRPG designation being used derisively by Western players and even developers. It certainly existed before this period – we were using ‘JRPG’ to categorize games on RPG Site the year it was founded, in 2006 – but five or so years later, the way the word was being used was shifting towards the negative.

A role-playing game, developed anywhere in the world, is a role-playing game.

This was the era of many Japanese developers, especially in the RPG space, struggling with the transition to HD. It’s the era of toe-curling interview comments about how “HD towns are hard” and then how the towns people loved in older games are, er, “boring”, to explain the lack of them in newer games. It was an era replete with cancellations, delays, and games getting retooled into entirely different titles. This brutally coincided with the ascendancy of the modern western-made RPG with mega-successes from companies like Bethesda, BioWare, and CD Projekt RED, to name a few.

“Your games just suck,” Fez creator Phil Fish said to some poor unsuspecting Japanese developer who asked him what he thought of modern Japanese games at a GDC panel.

Fish’s comments probably became the banner-bearer for the entire attitude as he doubled down on Twitter. “Your country’s games are fucking terrible nowadays,” he opined. Jonathan Blow, a man moved almost to tears by the concept that people didn’t see the deeper meaning in his navel-gazing platformer, joined in to call Japanese games “joyless husks”. Fish did later apologize.

It was, I say in all honesty, very bad. And in this period, I remember on forums like NeoGAF and GameFAQs as well as in some corners of the games media ‘JRPG’ being used derisively, and sometimes with racist undertones. “Oh, you like JRPGs, games with femboy protagonists?” That sort of tone. On RPG Site, we’d get it all the time back then. So I get it, and I know.

I haven’t thought about these times in years, but Yoshida’s comments have made me remember that era. Considering it now, it’s no surprise that attitude has left a scar and remains a sensitive subject, especially within Square Enix, the company that undoubtedly took the greatest beating in that time.

The Final Fantasy 16 party.

But – wow, that ‘but’ has been brewing for quite a few paragraphs now, hasn’t it? – but, but but… I still use the term JRPG. For me, it’s become a useful shorthand – and I think that is the primary way it is used today. Yoshida seems to at least partially get this based on his comments about the term now being a more positive one, too.

To me now, in the year of our lord 2023, JRPG hasn’t meant ‘Japanese RPG’ for a long time. The term has evolved, and the shitty, xenophobic context is now simply etymology. I use the term ‘JRPG’ to refer to a subset of design & stylistic hallmarks that were bred in Japan in the 80s and 90s.

Pretty much all RPGs – East or West – are descendants of Dungeons & Dragons. But the East and the West went in different directions. The West, on PC, arguably stayed truer to the D&D origins; leading to things like Ultima, Wizardry, and from there you can trace a lineage out to everything from Starfield to Diablo. The Japanese worked largely on console, and their RPGs shifted accordingly; more simple inputs, and a heavier separation between combat, exploration, and story scenes necessitated by the hardware.

Both sides developed their own tropes and traditions, and this is what I really mean when I say JRPG. The world today is so international that cross-contamination is only natural. We’ve seen this a lot with Japanese-made RPGs taking significant cues from popular titles in the West. FF16 is a poster child for this, in fact, but it also went the other way.

Undertale emerged from the mind of a Westerner, but also would not exist without Earthbound. South Park: The Stick of Truth absolutely owes its combat to Paper Mario – and the fandom franchise creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had for the SNES golden age of Japanese-made RPGs in general. Chained Echoes has recently channeled Chrono Trigger. Ubisoft’s Child of Light owes much to Final Fantasy and even Grandia. These games are everywhere, albeit often as indies. If you ask me what sort of game any of these are, I’d describe them as JRPGs.

By the same token, I wouldn’t really describe Final Fantasy 16 as a JRPG. I wouldn’t describe any of the Souls games that way, either. Elden Ring certainly feels as though it is a throwback: it has more in common with traditional Dungeons & Dragons than it does the years of ‘JRPG’ evolution that came later. It doesn’t feature the tropes, so it isn’t a JRPG… even if it is an RPG that is Japanese-made.

Basically, I’ve been treating this term as being like ‘CRPG’, ‘TRPG’, or ‘ARPG’ – a descriptor to help narrow the exact type and style of a game within a very, very broad genre.

Summons have long been a staple of Final Fantasy games. Does that mean they’re a ‘JRPG’ trope?

If I say CRPG (Computer RPG), you know what I probably mean. Isometric-ish view, oodles of text boxes and choice, grinding out loot and managing a sizable party – the things defined by the games that came out when those games were only possible on Computers, thus the name. If I say ARPG (Action RPG), you know I’m talking about visceral real-time hacking, slashing, maybe shooting, and character progression that involves a much streamlined RPG progression system than in those fuller, fattier CRPGs. We can even point to a series like Fallout, which began life as a CRPG and transitioned to an ARPG when Bethesda took possession of it.

And so it follows that if I say JRPG, I think most of you know what I mean. I never minded keeping the J, which did originally stand for Japanese, because it paid tribute to where these stylistic elements blossomed. But also, I’m a Westerner; so what do I know?

The term is everywhere now. You can find lists of the best JRPGs on many major games media outlets, the PlayStation Store has JRPG spotlight sales, Xbox’s official blog categorizes all posts about games of a certain type into a ‘JRPG’ category… Nintendo’s in on it, too. It is a thing.

Terms that make developers uncomfortable or evoke negative memories are no good either – so maybe we need a new word. I think it’s fair to say that video games have been stretching and outgrowing old genre definitions for a while now. That’s why we’ve ended up with truly rubbish genre descriptors like ‘Soulsborne’ or ‘Metroidvania’. Maybe we should be adding ‘JRPG’ to that list, now all games of that style are no longer made in Japan.

I thought it was fine, but… the thoughts of an actual Japanese developer have me stopped in my tracks. Yoshida’s comments really are thought-provoking – but I just don’t quite know the answer yet.

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