Whether you’ve finally paid off your last home loan to Tom Nook or are satisfied with the giant waterfall you’ve built with your terraforming powers, it’s easy to reach a standstill when you’ve accomplished the game’s major milestones.
But in spring of this year, it felt like all anyone was talking about was earning bells and trading fruit. I’d turn on my Switch at any given time and see at least a dozen friends online, all playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Visiting each other’s islands was my way of hanging out with my friends and family since I couldn’t see them in person. Even stores caught wind of the game’s popularity and began posting screenshots featuring Animal Crossing characters wearing branded clothing on their social media accounts.
Nintendo couldn’t have timed the game’s release any better: launched on March 20 for the Switch, it felt like a gift to the world as countries began going into quarantine in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. According to Nintendo’s quarterly earnings report, the game sold more than 13 million copies in its first six weeks.
While the general public has moved onto other games to keep themselves sane inside their homes, I’ve continued to play Animal Crossing every day, partly because I appreciate the mundaneness of routine, but mostly because I look forward to learning about Japanese culture with each passing season and the new items and activities that come with it.
Besides the items you can collect and decorate your home with, from tatami mat flooring to a kotatsu you can customize, there are other distinct Japanese nuances in the game that you may not have noticed.
Okay, so this one might be obvious. For just one week in April, the trees on our islands blush pink and we get DIY recipes to make cherry-blossom bonsai, blossom-viewing lanterns, and sakura-wood flooring for our homes. This is, of course, a reference to Japan’s famous cherry blossom season, when Japanese people and tourists alike flock outside and travel across the country to enjoy the blossoms during the springtime months, though most regions reach peak bloom time in April. Cherry blossoms, or sakura, are famous for their short lives, which is why we only get one week in-game before the petals begin falling en masse.
I particularly like that we can fashion an “outdoor picnic set” — the game’s nod to hanami, or the popular cherry blossom parties that friends, families, and coworkers have in Japan by sitting beneath the sakura trees and eating and drinking together. My friend Brooke, who spent the last six years living in Osaka and was feeling nostalgic, came over to my island and we had a virtual hanami of our own.
Because the game is literally called Animal Crossing, it makes sense for some of its critter characters to be references to Japanese folk tales. While the famous Tom Nook and his apprentices, Timmy and Tommy, are typically thought of as raccoons, they’re actually tanukis, or raccoon dogs. In addition to being real animals, tanukis have a long history in ancient Japanese folklore and are often described as supernatural beings. They’re also associated with prosperity, which is why you’ll see tanuki statues in many Japanese restaurants and shops (these statues are also available as in-game items).
Another notable character with ties to Japanese myths is Redd, aka Crazy Redd, aka Jolly Red, the shady art seller who deals in both authentic and fake paintings and sculptures (a word to the wise: don’t buy the Mona Lisa with drawn-on eyebrows). A recurring character from past Animal Crossing games, Redd is a fox, though he’s more specifically a reference to kitsune of Japanese legends. In some stories, kitsune can shape-shift into men or women and often use their powers to trick others, hence Redd’s mischievous nature.
For two weeks in May, players get to fill out stamp cards at stations posted around the museum in exchange for rewards in honor of International Museum Day.
In Japan, stamp rallies are popular ways for tourism sites to draw in visitors and get them to visit their vendors. These rallies are most often used by railway lines to get travelers to visit every station in the region. Some stamps can be elaborate and beautiful, which in itself can be considered a reward. Japanese temples also give stamps to travelers on pilgrimages, and hikers making the trek up Mount Fuji can purchase a walking stick and get it stamped along the way. I hate exercising, but I would gladly climb a mountain and sweat through my shirt for a cool souvenir I can show off to my friends.
In the Nook Shopping catalogue, players are able to order from a daily selection of items including clothing, furniture, and K.K. Slider music, but there’s also a seasonal section of goods that usually celebrates some Japanese holiday.
For the month of August, for instance, players can purchase outfits that celebrate “Cowherd and Weaver Girl Day,” which references Japan’s annual Tanabata Festival. Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival, is inspired by a Chinese folk tale about two separated lovers who can only meet once a year. You can buy an Orihime outfit (representing the weaver girl) or a Hikoboshi outfit (representing the cowherd).
Another item you can order is “bamboo grass,” or a tanzaku tree. During Tanabata, people can write wishes on tanzaku, or small colored pieces of paper, and hang them up on a tree. In Animal Crossing, you can interact with your tree and read some of the wishes — it’s definitely worth reading a few, as they tend to be humorous.
My personal favorite cultural Easter egg is the variety of K.K. Slider songs that are, in fact, Japanese. Some of them might sound obviously Japanese — there’s the shamisen strings in K.K. Jongara, which is a genre of folk music from Tsugaru, and Spring Blossoms, which pulls its theme from the original Japanese Animal Crossing game — but others require more digging.
One of these more obscure songs is K.K. Faire. During one gaming session with friends, my friend Michelle instantly identified the song as traditional Okinawan music. Okinawan folk songs, according to Michelle (who I consider to be an expert on all things Okinawa), use instruments like the sanshin, flute, drums, and voices supplied by men and women. In these songs, male voices typically sing the melody and words, while female voices supply rhythm singing. You can hear this in K.K. Faire as K.K. Slider does most of the singing and the higher notes are meant to represent female singers.
In the Japanese version of Animal Crossing, K.K. Faire is called K.K. Haisai, which Michelle says is Okinawan slang for “what’s up?” While listening to a recording of K.K. Faire on YouTube, I came across a sweet comment from a user that said “I love that Animal Crossing creators snuck in a traditional Okinawan sounding song into the K.K. soundtracks. Ahaha, nothing like coming across a character and being shocked because it’s the sound of home!!!”
My personal favorite that will resonate among Japanese Americans is K.K. Rally. The moment you hear the taiko beat and flute, you know it’s an obon song — that, and the cover art that depicts animals dancing around a yagura while K.K. Slider drums out a beat. Fun fact: in the Japanese version of the game, K.K. Rally is simply called K.K. Ondo.
I don’t know if I was the only person who was confused as to why it was raining nearly every day on my island throughout the month of June, but regardless I did my research and learned that June is typically the rainiest month of the year in most parts of Japan. Now that’s something you couldn’t have learned unless you stuck it out in the game until summer!
There are actual games in this issue. We've developed some original games with a little culture and a lot of fun. Grab the cousins or a group of friends and play together online (or in-person one day). Have fun!
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