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January 12, 2018

Tokyo: The Virtual City

January 12, 2018 | By | No Comments

In May of 2017 while in Tokyo I visited Meiji shrine in Shinjuku for the Spring Grand Festival, a series of traditional performances including dance, archery and theater. After returning home, I posted a few photos of the event to social media, as people of my generation tend to do. I soon received a comment from a friend. “Oh wow, I’m there right now!”

His comment took me by surprise. I had no idea my friend was in Japan, much less that they were at Meiji shrine that day. I quickly messaged him to see how long he would remain in the Shinjuku area and if he would like to get dinner that evening, or at the very least meet up later in the week.  “No, no!” my friend explained. “I’m at Meiji shrine in Persona 5. Your picture was so much like Meiji shrine in the game,” he went to on say, “that I knew exactly where you were.”

Meiji shrine in Persona 5.

Meiji shrine in the winter of 2010.

Persona 5 is a video game by Atlus where players travel around a virtual Tokyo. Meiji shrine is a major location within the game, where the player can meet with certain characters to advance the storyline and develop personal relationships. It is part of the immersive and interactive quality of games that my friend was able to say he was at Meiji shrine without it seeming like a strange comment to him.

Tokyo is one of the most represented cities in the world in popular culture. Like Los Angeles or New York, Tokyo often shows up in both Japanese and foreign media. However, Tokyo holds a particular position in the Japanese imagination. Not only the capital, Tokyo it is the center of cultural production and a vision of the nation itself, an aspect I wish to explore in my project. Tokyo’s preeminence in popular culture is also bolstered by the Japanese artistic tendency to accurately render real world locations in animation and video games, two of Japan’s most popular exports–and frankly how most foreigners learn about Japan. Unlike American cartoons which tend to use generic towns or fictional cities as their settings, many anime and games faithfully copy real world locations with exacting detail, lending an air of familiarity and normality to even the most unreal worlds of giant robots patrolling Chiyoda and magical girls dueling on the rooftops of Ginza.

Akihabara in Akiba’s Trip.

Akihabara, circa winter 2016.

While depictions of Tokyo within anime and film are intriguing, they do not hold the same possibilities for my project as do recreations of the city in video games. Film and television do not extend the same sensation of “being there,” the sort of extended telepresence that made my friend feel like he was at Meiji shrine. If my friend had been watching a film on Tokyo that had a scene with Meiji shrine at the moment he read my post, his reaction would not have been to say he was there. The immersive quality of games, particularly those open world games that allow a player to freely wander and explore, open the door to a new way of presenting historic sites to the public.

Persona 5 is not alone in allowing a player to visit a virtual Tokyo. The game Akiba’s Trip renders the real world location and pop culture mecca of Akihabara as its battlefield. For those familiar with Akihabara, the game delights in modelling a familiar urban landscape, where a player can run down an alleyway to see if the intersection he knows is ahead is also rendered in the game. Yet the game replicates Akihabara accurately enough that a first time visitor who is a veteran player of Akiba’s Trip can navigate the area as well as someone who has spent a substantial amount of time there–perhaps even better. It is this transmission of knowledge that interests me, the ability to spatially construct a virtual Tokyo of 1964 for a person visiting my web site to the point where they can understand how the city was transformed and laid out as intuitively as knowing where their corner grocery store is in relation to their place of work.

My friend’s comments helped influence how I wanted to develop my CHI project. It is one thing to show a visitor photos and maps of a location. It is another to attempt to bring them into the world you are recreating, to give the impression of actually having been there—electronically at least. While some of the more ambitious means of immersion like virtual or augmented reality are outside the scope of the project—for now—I began to imagine my project by thinking along these lines. Instead of bringing Tokyo to site visitors, my site would endeavor to bring the visitor to Tokyo. A subtle distinction perhaps, but one that I believe will set my project apart. The question of how to translate this vision into a workable project is the subject of my next post.

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