Perhaps in part because of its sheer technological power, those of us in the West often jump to the conclusion that Japanese culture isn’t too much different from ours. Yet in reality, Japan is a culture far more different from Western culture than most people realize. But as we will see, it is very important to be aware of the fact that Zelda came from a culture far different from what we might expect . . .

A Culture Apart

For millennia, the great land of Japan, isolated from the rest of the world, developed a strong martial culture. The millennia of isolation and development created what seems to us a peculiar nation. As my Japanese American professor from last semester pointed out, when World War II rolled around, they were more fascist and xenophobic than even the Germans. But more importantly, Japanese society had an incredible amount of cohesion. In 1912, the Japanese government went into the middle of the forest and opened up a storehouse which hadn’t been opened since 1200. It was filled with gold and precious things. But the peculiar thing is that there was no lock on the door and no guards. Completely untouched. And yet everyone knew it was there. This speaks to a kind of cohesion that can be seen nowhere else. Well, World War II rolled around, and the Allies found themselves facing a foe unlike anything they had faced before. Kill 10% of British or American unit, and its efficiency drops by over 50%. Kill 90% of a Japanese unit, and it can still kill you. Indeed, Japanese parents told their sons, “Come back dead.”

But we all know how World War II ended. And the Allied occupation of Japan did have an impact on Japanese culture. Most relevant to Nintendo fans, Mario himself was created in honor of a Westerner who lived in Japan. Now the country is an industrial superpower linked to the rest of the world. Yet what the millennia of isolationism had built did not truly crumble away; Japanese society is still very, very different from our own. Even in the early 80’s and 90’s, the Japanese wanted to purify the labor pool, and so actually recruited Japanese living in Brazil to work in Japan (yet imagine their horror when the new immigrants turned out to speak Portuguese and like salsa and Latin music).

The Japanese concept of social relations is very foreign to us. My Japanese American professor remembered his aunt telling her two daughters,”If you have an illegitimate child, first I’ll kill the child, and then you, and then myself” (and she was dead serious). He also told of how his own mother would say, “The nail that sticks up should be hammered down.” Conformity and obeying orders is absolutely a part of the Japanese way of thinking. In social science terms, it is the primacy of the group over the individual. When Miyamoto spoke of how first person shooter games are liked “by people in the West,” his preconception that Japan and the West are very different is not trivial in the least!

Japan and Zelda

OK. So, Japanese culture is very different. But what does that have to do with Zelda? For one thing, many aspects of Japanese culture can be seen in even some of the most basic aspects of the games. For instance, one of the aspects of Japanese culture is a sort of circle-dance of gift giving. In other words, if I were to do a good deed for you, or were to give you a gift, our culture would demand that you repay me back with another gift. (For those of you who know ancient history, this is an exact match of the “client-patron” relationship seen in the Roman world). Sound familiar? This very thing is a critical aspect of the Zelda series, and it’s an aspect that I’ve seen many American Zelda newbies stumble on because they don’t realize that helping people out yields gifts.

Another important point for Zelda fans to be aware of is that the Japanese traditionally think of time as circular, unlike Westerners who think of time as linear. *Hint hint* But we’ll talk about that later. The main thing I’m concerned with for now is pointing out, once again, that the Japanese origins make it more difficult to determine exactly what the origins are for the various elements of the Zelda world. This means that when people tell me that such-and-such element of the games is derived from some aspect of some other obscure culture, or that “the deeper meaning” of a Zelda game is found in some Western literary source, I have my doubts.

On the other hand, the games are overall not modeled after Japan but after a sort of European medieval world. We will later see why this is, but for now just notice that the overall tone of all the games has been European rather than Japanese. The Wind Waker is the most Japanese of the games thus far.

It gets even more difficult when we realize that the game has changed by the time it falls into the hands of English-speakers. The process of change is known as “localization.” This is key. If it was simply a matter of translating text, it would be known as merely “translation.” Of course, the software has to be adapted to the regional hardware, but in addition to that, noticable changes must be made to the game so that it makes sense to Western gamers. An extreme example of this would be Animal Crossing, which involved changing entire in-game holidays in the process of localization. And indeed, there are many specifically Western elements to the games that are probably a result of localization.


In later weeks, we will take looks at specific orgins of Zelda. But I will not begin with “the deep stuff.” For that becomes difficult when you realize that the game is a product of a culture worlds apart from that of the modern West.

  • Chris Houlihan

    I've been looking at some of the older articles. This one is great! There should be an easier way to access older articles without having to go through every old post to see them

  • This is a very interesting post. I am doing some work for my art A-level project around Japanese culture and I wanted to tie a little bit of Zelda into it. This is really helpful, thanks a lot 🙂

  • The combination of a 3D world and Link’s ability to travel across walls gives the player the opportunity to travel areas that were previously inaccessible, creating a totally new experience.