The following is a full translation of this interview conducted by 4Gamer on February 10th of 2014 with the lead of Japan’s gaming regulatory board, CERO. (It’s a part of their editorial team known only as “MU.”) It touches on how censorship comes about in the Japanese gaming industry, how the board was created, and how “forbidden expressions” are maintained in accordance with “societal standards.”
Why are the expressions and content different between Japanese versions and overseas versions? We now dare to ask CERO about the current state of the “ratings system”
It’s been a while since it became normal for titles targeting toward overseas gamers to be sold and played even in Japan regularly. Often some of the reasons given for that include a lessening of resistance to “Western games” and the spread of online delivery services, but this has also increased the chances we have to see “differences in expression and content.” This is a point that often worries players who would like to play the original (overseas) version with the same content and expressions left intact.
How exactly do these types of changes come about?
You might remember that many reporters believe that CERO’s (Comptuer Entertainment Rating Organization) rating system is one factor that contributes to this. However, I think the facts of the situation, how this same system is actually carried out, or how it affects the game industry, aren’t well known.
That’s why 4Gamer visited the senior managing director of CERO, Kazuya Watanabe, to hear about the current state of the ratings system and how the “differences” between Japanese versions and overseas versions come about.
4Gamer： Thanks for speaking with us. We’re used to seeing “CERO ratings” on games and official sites, but today I think I’d like to ask you about the deliberation process and what basis you decide things.
Watanabe： Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
4Gamer： Let’s get straight to it. Does this rating system apply to every game sold within Japan?”
Watanabe： Our purview is mostly the console games sold within the country. We handle PC, cellphone, and smartphone games, but only a select part.
By the way, the amount we cover for console games is pretty much 100%. We were able to reach this number because many of the industry groups cooperated with us.
4Gamer： When you say industry groups, are you talking about game companies?
Watanabe: What I mean here by industry groups is CESA (Computer Entertainment Software Association). As well, it would be correct to say it’s also from the gaming companies including the ones who make the platforms, as well as the distribution groups.
4Gamer： Well then, will you tell us the story of how CERO began?
Watanabe: We got started in June of 2002, and our rating deliberations started from October of the same year. I think you may already know this, but previously there had been a ratings system. At that time, CESA was around and they performed their own kind of self-regulatory “ethics code.”
However, there was this problem that the ethics committee only consisted of around 10 people and the deliberations their ethics code were based on were very abstract to the point where the basis would blur from person to person.
So CESA used the ESRB（Entertainment Software Rating Board）inspections standard as a basis and aimed for the establishment of a rating systems for Japanese versions, and that was CERO’s starting point.
4Gamer：And when CERO started up, at that time did the entirety of the gaming industry see it as a need?
Watanabe: It would have been ideal had that been the case, but it was quite different from that (bitter laugh).
That was still a time when the criticism toward games in the general public was strong and there was this typical bad image they could be interpreted under. Because people were saying, “games can have a bad influence on young people,” as if it were in anyway true, so the industry had to make their stance clear against such a societal prejudice. Thus it took the form of game industry groups calling game makers together and having them agree to our standards.
Before CERO started, we enacted a survey asking game companies, “Is a rating system needed?” and perhaps it was because the very idea of a ratings system was not well known, but it’s the truth of the situation that there were a lot of negative opinions.
4Gamer：In the current rating system, how are the inspections actually carried out?
Watanabe: Since we recruit inspectors from our official site, we invite the general population. The qualifications to apply is that you must be “over 20 years old” and that you “can’t have any deep affiliations with related game companies.”
Our applicants are chosen from looking at their details and from interviews, and right now we have about 45 people registered. As for the makeup of it, there’s pretty much 50/50 men and women. Ages range from 20 to 60, and we’re trying not to have a prejudice for any one age range. There are students, housewives, etc. lots of different types of professions.
4Gamer：By the way, on what basis do you select your inspectors?
Watanabe: We don’t inquire about your skill or experience with games, but because there are those who get queasy with extreme depictions or sick with 3D games, we look at their ability to handle those things.
4Gamer：Do you pay them a gratuity?
Watanabe: We do, but it’s really rather small. It’s best described as something like what you get from working a part time job.
4Gamer：How many people work on the inspection of one game?
Watanabe: The principle is to assign three people to one title. We have them come to the CERO offices, and then have them check a video in a special booth.
Well we call it a booth, but all there is is a monitor and a playback device, so it’s even more bare bones than an internet cafe room (laughs). Of course the booths are divided by partitions, so inspectors can’t talk with each other.
4Gamer：So the inspectors aren’t actually playing games, are they?
Watanabe: No, they aren’t. They do their inspections on the basis of a digest video the game makers submit. Having said that, the inspectors aren’t making decisions based on their own individual feelings. With CERO ratings we have set up a finely categorized system of inspections standards, what the inspectors actually do is cross reference the inspection standards with the content of the game’s digest video. That’s what the inspector’s job is.
4Gamer： And you’re saying it makes no difference how the inspector “felt”?
Watanabe: That’s right. It’s an objective inspection system, so there really isn’t much of a personal difference.
For instance, if we were to take one kiss scene, it’s split into several different levels, like “a cute kiss you’d see in a kid’s cartoon,” “a tongue twisting kiss,” or “a wet, noisy kiss.” They look at the actual images, and just check off which level it falls under, so I believe we can say personal opinions mostly don’t enter into it.
4Gamer： Even so, what do you do when the three different inspectors’ results don’t match?
Watanabe: When it’s some sort of expression where it’s hard to decide, the inspectors results can differ. In those cases we either go with a majority vote or ask for another check.
4Gamer： So that’s how it works. If you’re going to have this kind of system, it would seem that referencing the inspection standards would become very important, wouldn’t it?
Watanabe: The inspection standards are split into four categories: “sexual expressions,” “violent expressions,” “expressions of anti-social acts,” and “language/ideology-related expressions.” These are further divided into a more detailed list of around 30 items and with those we set a rating according to a scale of 6 levels.
Thus it follows that the references for the inspection standards become a matrix of 180 cells aligned along rows.
4Gamer： Can you show us that reference?
Watanabe: I’m sorry, but as of right now, we don’t allow them for general public viewing. Though, since it has been over ten years since the current ratings system has started, even if we don’t show all of them, I want to think about displaying the inspection standards for public view in some sort of form.
By the way, when the rating systems started, we didn’t necessarily fill in all of the cells of the matrix. We made over 20 revisions for the expressions measured in the inspection standards, adding new ones, making certain expressions more easy to understand, following the changes made in games themselves. In this way, we’ve built up to the current way we are now.
4Gamer： You mentioned “ratings aligned along 6 levels of expression” before, but CERO ratings have 5 categories: A (all ages), B (12 and over), C (15 and over), D (17 and over) and Z (only above 18).
Watanabe: Yes. To add to these 5, there is something that goes beyond Z, and we call those “forbidden expressions.” Games that contain these expressions don’t follow our ratings, in other words, we don’t give them ratings. We decide this with the agreement of industry groups, so it’s not related to government laws. Therefore, you could say it’s a kind of censorship, but it’s only this part where we’re censoring expression.
4Gamer： And on what kind of basis are you deciding this on?
Watanabe: To explain it simply, that’s decided by consulting with “healthy ethical standards for society.” And because of that, “forbidden expressions” are included under expressions that are allowed under the law.
4Gamer： Only “people over 18” can purchase Z-rated titles. Therefore, because people 17 and under can’t play them, there’s a certain viewpoint that says we ought to widen the acceptable range of forbidden expressions.
Watanabe: Yes. I know there are opinions like that. Except, you said that “17 and under can’t play them,” but what CERO is doing is not censorship. We don’t have the authority to do that.
What we’re doing is the “presentation of information.” Before a player buys something, we offer information so they’ll know something of the level of content in the game; it doesn’t have any power of enforcement. However, it’s certainly true that there are cases where local governments or industry groups have decided upon acts that amount to censorship based on CERO ratings.
4Gamer： Of late, there are overseas games that have parts which fall under your forbidden expressions and when they are put on sale in Japan, there are quite a few cases where expressions and content are changed. It would appear that people who want to play a game as close as possible to its original shape feel unsatisfied, but is this some sort of rule that they can’t avoid in order to sell games in Japan?
Watanabe: When you say “rule,” it sounds nasty. The are “methods” CERO and industry groups have decided on, and because these aren’t compulsory, they’re in fact different from rules and censorship. Like I said before, we consider forbidden expressions to be things that are far removed from the ethical standards of polite society. There are those who peddle a different argument, but a few years ago we enacted a survey about Z expressions and forbidden expressions. In the end, it reached about 400 pages, but extremely interesting results came out of it.
We targeted around 1000 people for this survey, and asked them to answer questions around all sorts of expressions, like sexual and violent ones included in the Z ratings and forbidden expressions; we had them answer us, “Above what age would this be valid, as well should it be forbidden?” And when we did, the majority of people answered that the things that are currently considered forbidden expressions “should be forbidden.” Of course, there were opinions that weren’t like that, but we think our results show that we haven’t strayed far from the common consensus.
4Gamer： In short, you came to the conclusion that the current ratings standards are justified, didn’t you?
Watanabe: I’m sure you know this, but the regulations for overseas games are what we could call “relaxed” compared to Japan. That’s why, just like I explained, in the survey we had them answer for us about the level of violent expressions. The result was, unrelated to how much it was regulated in Japan, that “gruesomely violent expressions ought to be further forbidden” was a majority opinion.
We don’t use these survey results to actually change the ratings standards, but if these opinions become the standard, then perhaps we should look into the restriction of violent expressions.
On the other hand, when it comes to sexual expressions, we saw a lot of opinions that “we ought to make the restrictions more lenient.” A great deal of women are included in this. For instance, we got some feedback from women that said “women’s nipples” are considered a forbidden expression, but “that’s strange, since you can see them in movies and on television.”
4Gamer：Certainly, it’s easy to compare to television and movies.
Watanabe: Yes. Except, this type of comparison was but one example, we mostly compared the common sense of each and every one of our participants when we have them give us their opinions. And because common sense changes based on the flow of time and the upheavals of wider society, we must always create an inspection standard that fits it.
4Gamer： In short, what you’re saying is that inspection standards change based on the times. And until now, a few years back expressions that were considered D or Z level are now considered forbidden expressions, and so could there be cases where that works in the opposite direction?
Watanabe: We have not raised or lowered the levels for similar expressions since the start of inspection under the CERO system. In addition, I don’t think it’s necessary.
However, it’s not like we’re thinking that we want to stubbornly protect the inspection standards for the Z level and forbidden expressions; previously we did have a proposal where we said, “Why not loosen the restrictions on sexual expressions?” Except, at that time we weren’t able to reach a consensus among industry groups.
That said, we don’t know what will happen 2 or 3 years from now. “Society” is something that doesn’t move quickly. It only changes gradually, you see.
4Gamer： For example, even though there’s one game that contains severed zombie limbs, a different game doesn’t show severed limbs, but they have the same rating. Are you saying this is not because of CERO’s inspections, but that the game makers just decided for it to be that way?
Watanabe: That might be it, but someone in my position can’t speak to that question clearly. It’s just the types of expressions in games are many and varied, and it’s true that inspections are becoming more difficult.
Just like I said before, the inspectors don’t play the game from start to finish. Since the most extreme expressions are provided to us from the makers in a 15-20 minute digest video, they can’t take into account the elements that aren’t included in the video.
4Gamer：And you haven’t perhaps considered changing to an inspection method where you actually play the games?
Watanabe: Unfortunately, when you think about the number and volume of games we have to inspect, that’s not realistic and too difficult to implement when you consider the time it would take. Right now, we inspect about 100 games a month, but no matter what the number of games is, we’ve set it to where we convey the results in under a week.
When you get right down to it, it’s an inspection process that depends on the logical supposition that “there are no lies” in the provided materials and videos.
4Gamer：Well this is changing the subject a bit, but there are cases where game shops don’t put up games with Z ratings on store shelves, or they put them in places where they’re separated from the rest and don’t stand out. I would think that would produce a lot of game makers who want to get a D rating instead of a Z.
Watanabe: Oh, I don’t think there’s a lot, but there have been cases where the first inspection results came up with a Z, but the expression level was changed upon another review. If we receive some sort of request for discussion from game makers, we can explain what makes for a Z rating. And the same can be said for forbidden expressions.
4Gamer：I’ve heard of cases of overseas games that contain forbidden expressions and because of various circumstances couldn’t change those expressions, and thus weren’t able to be sold in Japan. People who want to play these games can only buy the overseas version and that’s just the way it is, what do you think of that?
Watanabe: I have heard of stories where there are contract problems and they have to give up putting these games out for sale, but these cases amount to only a few. There’s nothing that can be done under the ratings system, I believe.
4Gamer： Again, there are cases where, even when games go on sale in Japan, the players don’t know that content and expressions are different from the overseas versions until they play them. And you don’t think CERO is contributing to this situation?
Watanabe: When it comes to things like that, I do recognize that it’s a problem that players feel unsatisfied, but it’s a decision based on each game maker’s sales strategy and thus it is not for us at CERO to speak up about it. We strictly respect each other’s standing ground.
4Gamer： All right. Then, tell me what the merit of a CERO rating system is.
Watanabe: Our greatest merit is to give a basis of selection to those who don’t know that much about games when they buy them. When it comes to games, there’s a lot of cases where parents are buying games for their children or grandchildren, and in these cases, it helps them. It’s an information proposition for end users, you could say.
The ESRB rating system’s purpose is also to provide a basis for buying or not buying based on your own responsibility. Along those lines, can it not be said that Japan is late at adopting a system of personal responsibility? This is not just limited to games, with television or movies, if there are extreme expressions “the municipal government is lazy,” “it’s because they don’t censor something,” there’s a tendency to blame the government or somebody else. I think we ought to consider a bit more about where the lines of our personal responsibility come in.
4Gamer： In short, you’re saying the CERO ratings are a material that can be used to make your own decisions about purchases?
Watanabe: That’s exactly it.
4Gamer：So what do you think the future holds for rating systems?
Watanabe: I think it will continue to be an important role for someone to provide information to players. However, if you’re asking if the current rating system will be applied in the future, that’s a difficult question.
The current ratings system is built with consoles in mind at its center, but if we’re going to also treat cell phone, smartphone and digital PC games, then the numbers become extraordinary. As well, like I said we report findings in a week, but we’d need them to come out more quickly perhaps.
Whatever happens, we may move to a “self-rating method” like parts of America and Europe do. This is an inspection system wherein a part of inspection standards are widely shared for all to see, and the those who sell the games consult with the standards and we let them decide their own ratings.
4Gamer： If you do that, there’s a chance the uniformity of ratings would be lost, isn’t there?
Watanabe: For instance, in parts of America, it’s something like you answer several dozen questions and you can find which rating is appropriate for you. For small scale things like smartphone apps, we might have to move to this system whether we like it or not.
In addition, you could intentionally settle on different ratings, but if after you’ve put it out into the world and it’s revealed there’s a problem with the rating, it would be corrected in an open fashion. At the same time, you would lose the trust of the society around you and as a result I believe it would function correctly.
I looked upon this interview thinking to find some sort of road to play overseas games in as close as possible to their original state, along with learning the facts of how CERO ratings work. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get a clear answer for that, but I think I’ve perhaps understood that a ratings system does not necessarily exist for the purpose of regulating expression. However, as long as the inspection standards reflect the ethical standards of wider society or opinions, it might be hard to change it based on just the game industry or its players.
Nevertheless, much like Watanabe said, this doesn’t mean that it’s been decided that in the future it will be the same system that will never change. CERO has said that in response to society’s demands, they will continue to broadly solicit opinions for discussion around the validity of inspection standards that match the age we’re living in.
It’s something of an aside, but Watanabe’s pointed statement, “Japan is late at adopting a system of personal responsibility,” left an impression with me. It made think all of a sudden that, although there may be many opinions about what constitutes the limits of personal responsibility, if each and every person who bought a product thought for themselves and decided themselves what kind of influence they have, and this was recognized by all of society, then all of what is seen as “censorship” would become completely unnecessary, would it not?
I wonder how long you have to live before you become like Mr. Watanabe?