Debate over game violence boils over in Japan

Osaka Prefecture becomes third area in Japan to join the ban on "violent" video games to minors; retailers irked by GTAIII ban in Kanagawa.

According to a report in the Mainichi Daily News last week, the Osaka Prefectual Government is planning to ban violent-game sales to minors, possibly starting in September. Violent games will be labeled as harmful publications and an obstruction to the regulation of providing youths with a "wholesome growing environment."

A final decision will be made on the matter when it's discussed among Osaka Prefecture assembly members in September.

The Osaka government claims the ban is necessary after a 17-year-old boy went on a stabbing spree in February at a local Neyagawa, Osaka Prefecture-area elementary school, fatally wounding a teacher and injuring two other school employees.

A former classmate of the boy said he was obsessed with violent games involving killing people and once had aspirations of moving to Tokyo to work for a game company or write for a gaming magazine. Psychiatrists deemed him mentally competent to stand trial in March, according to a Kyodo News report.

Osaka Prefecture also plans to create its own rating system, which could potentially join or replace Japan's own game-rating system run by the Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO), a nonprofit organization. CERO rates and labels games sold to retailers with a suggested age range.

Osaka Prefecture, the second-most-populated area after Tokyo, has become the third prefecture to announce its plan of banning the sale of violent video games to minors. Previously, the prefecture of Kanagawa created controversy after it announced it would ban the sale of Grand Theft Auto III to minors, and nearby Saitama Prefecture also announced it would consider a similar ban.

Following game publishers in Japan, representatives of specialty stores in the country are also expressing their discontent with Kanagawa Prefecture's decision to ban the sales of Capcom's GTAIII to minors. The region, located immediately south of Tokyo, has started fining stores up to 300,000 yen ($2,776) if they are found selling the game to children under the age of 18. This marks the first time that a game has been designated as a harmful publication in Japan.

Kanagawa Prefecture held a meeting on Friday to notify gaming and electronics stores that are operating in the local region. The government outlined the ordinance for the GTAIII age restriction and gave examples of how the game should be separated from other nonrestricted games on store shelves.

The prefecture argued that the game's glorification of violence and murder, its graphical expression of cruelty and gore, and the ability to exercise murder and other cruel activities in a "realistic" environment warranted a tight restriction on its sales.

Game retailers were quick to question the illogical explanation of singling out GTAIII. When retailers complained about the ambiguity of the ordinance and asked representatives of Kanagawa why GTAIII was banned while Grand Theft Auto: Vice City--GTAIII's sequel, which has just as much violence and features a similar setting--has been left untouched, the local government evaded giving an explanation.

"The reason explained by the prefecture fits in with a lot of games. It's irrational for them to just ban [Grand Theft Auto III]. We're going to have a lot of trouble trying to explain this to our customers," one participating retailer said.

"We need to explain to our customers why the game was banned. We wanted the government to clearly explain their standards, but they were avoiding it," said an operation division chief at Commonwealth Entertainment, a game chain store located in 20 areas throughout Kanagawa.

This is not the first time that opacity in Kanagawa Prefecture's decision to ban GTAIII was pointed out. Capcom, the game's Japanese publisher, previously released a statement that criticized Kanagawa for not clearly defining its standards, commenting that it can cause issues in the freedom of expression in future games. Capcom also stated that it is considering taking legal action on the matter. The company has recently announced that it will also publish Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in Japan this fall. However, it hasn't decided on a release platform for the game yet.

For retailers that participated in the meeting, Kanagawa government's lack of explanation was only one of the things they were displeased with. While Kanagawa had prepared a room to accommodate 200 participants, only 16 people showed up to the meeting. Representatives for the Japanese retailers blamed the local government's lack of consideration toward retailers for the small turnout, commenting, "We have also sent notices to our participants, but with the meeting taking place in the morning of a weekday, there were stores that couldn't open up their schedule. The prefecture should have sent notices earlier."

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