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Yakuza’s selective English dubbing reminds me of going home

When Sega announced in 2018 that Yakuza spinoff title Judgment would receive an English dub, I was pretty excited. While I really enjoyed 2017’s Yakuza 0 and its original Japanese voice track, I’m the type of person who prefers listening to English dubs when watching anime or playing Japanese RPGs. When Judgment launched in Western territories on June 25, 2019, I was thrilled to hear Greg Chun’s charming voice come through my TV speakers as he portrayed the game’s protagonist, Takayuki Yagami.

But Judgment’s English voice track doesn’t cover the entire game. Key dialogue pertaining to the game’s critical path is in English and some of the important side characters speak it too, but not everything was dubbed over. As a result, while Yagami goes around speaking English, everyone else in the city of Kamurocho sticks with Japanese.

While Sega of America implemented the English dub track in this manner for logistical reasons, the game unexpectedly reminded me of my own experiences going back to my home country of China.

Xie xie

In Judgment and its sequel, Lost Judgment, there’s one particular interaction in the games that I relate to the most. It’s when Yagami orders food at a restaurant and he says “thank you” in English while the cashier says in response, “arigato gozaimashita” — meaning “thank you very much” in Japanese.

That particular interaction calls back to a familiar,real-life experience whenever I’d venture outdoors in China. My own Mandarin Chinese speaking skills aren’t very good, and sometimes I’d even forget that I was not in the United States! I often found myself saying “thank you” in English to my server who brought over my food. However, all of the servers knew what I meant anyway since English is a globally popular language. They’d say “xie xie” to me, meaning “thank you” in Mandarin Chinese.

So, whenever I’d go to a restaurant in Judgment to refill Yagami’s HP with food, I feel a sense of nostalgia. I haven’t been back in China since 2012. While I’m sure a lot of things have changed since the last time I’ve been there, the country is still filled with so many different kinds of food vendors. I remember waking up every morning in Shenzhen and my uncle would take me to a restaurant next door for a $5 all-you-can-eat breakfast special. Almost limitless amounts of rice, porridge, vegetables, dumplings, and kebabs!

Man, I’d love to experience that again.

Translating Yakuza

While I found relatable moments in Judgment’s English dub, I admit I was perplexed that only the important story aspects like the critical path were dubbed over. Sega localization producer Scott Strichart tells me this was a decision based on costs. The franchise’s first English dub was with the original Yakuza game in 2006, and the series wouldn’t get another one until Judgment in 2018.

“In that gap, the studio in Japan recorded background voices as needed that could be rolled from game to game for the most part. To need to fill … years of thugs, cashiers, and cab drivers was all but insurmountable for one title that was only adding an English dub as a grand experiment to begin with,” he explains. “So, Judgment had a very clear line drawn — only the primary cast who participated in the critical path would get English voices across the board.”

However, the Japanese voices from the various NPCs make the cities of Kamurocho and Ijincho feel genuine. “I don’t think I would ever fully eliminate Japanese voices from the world. The games are set in Japan and there’s an authenticity factor there,” Strichart continues. “That’s why we left honorifics in the English, too. Awkward as that can be, eliminating the Japanese language from these games entirely would be a disservice to their setting.”

Also, casting two Asian Americans in the lead roles in the latest games has been an important aspect. Strichart says, “Caveated as it is, I hope that the efforts we make to highlight the Asian American acting community in these prominent roles don’t go unnoticed within a system that still favors a well-intentioned but flawed vision of ‘color-blind’ casting.”

Living vicariously

That style of English dubbing extends to 2020’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon as well. Notably, the game has a mechanic called Table Talk, in which protagonist Ichiban Kasuga, voiced by the excellent Kaiji Tang, has conversations with his party members at restaurants in Ijincho as they bond while eating food.

Table Talk reminds me of conversations I’ve had at restaurants in China with friends from the U.S. who just happened to be in the same city at the same time as me (usually in a big city like Shanghai or Beijing) or have moved back to the country with their families. Some of them spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently and had no issues navigating the country, while others were similar to me and didn’t understand the language well enough. Regardless, I was comfortable with speaking English and catching up with these friends in that setting, just like Kasuga.

Eliminating the Japanese language from these games entirely would be a disservice to their setting.

The way Sega of America approached the English dubbing process for Judgment and Yakuza: Like a Dragon unintentionally created a unique experience for me as an Asian American going back and visiting his own home country. There are some Asian Americans like me who immigrated to the U.S. as children and our parents prioritized us learning English rather than our mother tongue in order to better assimilate into our new home.

When it finally came time to go back, I faced a big culture shock not being able to speak the native language. Even so, I felt a sense of comfort and belonging in being able to reconnect to my roots with others who looked like me. My experiences there also spurred me to enroll in Mandarin Chinese speaking classes during college too.

Sega is currently working on a sequel to Yakuza: Like a Dragon and it seems like Lost Judgment could possibly be the last game within the subseries. Granted, my expired passport and China’s COVID restrictions will prevent me from visiting the country again for a good while. But in the meantime, however, I’ll continue to live vicariously through the English dubs in upcoming Yakuza games.

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