It finally happened: after years of chatting about games and being Japanese American, my friend Iszac and I decided to make a game about being Japanese American.
For the better part of this year, I’ve been working with game developer (and pal!) Iszac Gaton on a visual novel we’re calling J-Town–a text-based, interactive experience that teaches players about Japanese American history, culture, and community. Players get to explore the vibrant and close-knit J-Town, a fictional neighborhood with very real influences: our own three Japantowns in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose. It’s a community-inspired game that’s only made possible by our community, as we held a Kickstarter earlier this year to raise money to pay our hardworking team (learn more here).
We're stoked to finally release J-Town (and for everyone to access for free on Steam), but until then… I thought it’d be fun for Iszac and I to interview each other about our process. Here's a little sneak peek into what we've put together so far.
Taylor: Let’s start at the beginning. How did we meet, Iszac?
Iszac: We met back in 2017 through the Nikkei Community Internship. Basically, it’s a summer program where college students work in the three Historic Japantowns of California and learn about the community and its history. I was based in San Jose and Taylor was in LA, and through the networking events, we met up.
Following that, we worked as program coordinators for our respective cohorts and have kept up the conversation on social media since. And then in 2021 when I had the idea for this game, I knew I needed a writer who was, one, knowledgeable about JA culture and Japantown, and two, had an understanding of games and game narratives. And when I put all that together, Taylor was bar none the best person to reach out to.
Taylor: And it all led up to the beginning of 2022, when you asked if I wanted to make a game with you…
Iszac: That I did!
Taylor: When you said you wanted to create a visual novel celebrating the Japantowns and needed a writer to bring the story and characters to life, it was a no-brainer for me. Creating new characters, from scratch, for the first time in my life seemed like a cool challenge–and, of course, I’ll take any opportunity to share what makes our community so special. Do you want to tell folks about everyone who played a role in making J-Town?
Iszac: Yes! We’ve been incredibly lucky to work with incredibly fun and talented individuals, many of whom are involved with the JA community in some way. Izumi Murase designed our logo. Jill Yamanishi has been hard at work on all of our designing our UI elements, and Robert Le has been killing it by composing our original soundtrack.
On top of that and my art that you’ll see in the game, we’ve got Laurie Takeda editing some trailers for marketing. Maddie Matsumoto and Abby Espiritu, two incredible voice actors, are helping with the casting for our game. We’re hoping to announce those roles soon, but they’re going to bring so much life to the game. And last but certainly not least, we have you, our writer and wonderful co-director.
Taylor: I thought I’d only be writing for J-Town, but thanks to the indie nature of this project and Iszac’s generosity, I ended up wearing a bunch of different hats. I got to voice my opinions on the game’s UI, have a say in what our music would sound like for different scenes, and even weigh in on voice actor submissions. Hearing an actor read Sharon Miyazaki’s lines, bringing our first character to life…it gave me chills. What about you? Any memorable moments for you during this whole process?
Iszac: I know it’s a copout answer, but every step of the process and watching this whole game come together bit by bit has been memorable. I’ve loved coordinating with each team member and getting sent back a small piece of the puzzle that made the whole picture even better. But if I have to pick the most memorable moment, I would say it was when you sent in the initial script for Sharon. It was the first piece you wrote, but it so perfectly captured what I had initially envisioned for the game. When I finished reading it I was legit pacing around my house. I was so excited. What about you?
Taylor: This probably seems boring because it’s what I was hired to do, but creating the characters of J-Town was magical. I’ve told you this, but I was so scared every time I’d move on to creating a new character because it felt like a giant boulder of a task…only to start writing and get lost in the flow for hours and hours. Once I started writing, the characters would just appear.
I think my familiarity with Japanese American history and our Japantowns made creating these characters fairly easy. Almost all of J-Town’s lore, as you know, is pulled from real history, from big events like Japanese American incarceration to more nuanced details, like the role anime culture shops play in historically cultural areas. A lot of this is stuff I’ve been thinking about from the time I worked in Little Tokyo.
But I’d say my other favorite part of this process has been seeing you draw the characters exactly the way I’d envisioned them. I felt like you really understood them, and your art turned out amazing.
Iszac: I’m just drawing the poignant personalities that you’re writing. That to me is the hard part. I think everything you’ve written has been so charming and unique. And that’s super important to me. We’re not a monolith. Our community has a lot of stories to tell, and like many marginalized communities, folks generally don’t get to learn about them in school or in accessible media.
If a player finishes the game and learns one thing they didn’t know before, or connects with the community that inspired this game, I think we did everything we set out to do. If someone seeks out more info about the JA community or is inspired to create something that teaches others about their community, then I would probably cry. What do you want folks to take away from this game?
Taylor: I mean, I’d love for people to walk away having learned about how vibrant and complex ethnic enclaves like our Japantowns are. They’re not just home to the best ramen joints or backdrops for your photoshoots–they have rich histories and are important spaces for fostering culture, education, and connection. And they’re built, maintained, and uplifted by real people! It was while working in Little Tokyo that I really understood how important physical space is for building community with others, and with threats like gentrification ever looming, losing that space is a real possibility.
I’m not saying I want every person who plays this to drop everything and move to Little Tokyo–that’d be cool, though–but if one person finished J-Town and maybe thought about learning more about the community they live in or joining one of their local nonprofits or something…I’d feel satisfied with that.
Iszac: Me, too. Thanks for having me!
Taylor: And thanks for having me on this project!