Commentary: Limits on video gaming the heart of a growing controversy in Japan

TOKYO: The great charm of Kagawa prefecture is that nothing much happens there.

It has, glacially, perfected the udon noodle; its Ritsurin landscaped gardens have been stunning — but immobile — for nearly 400 years; in 2013 a Boeing 787 safely made an emergency landing at the main airport.

An unlikely place, therefore, wilfully to plunge itself in to three seething global debates on game addiction, parental responsibility and the rights of the individual.

But then, it’s always the quiet ones.

NEW RULES ON VIDEO GAMING PUSHED THROUGH

Although the whole thing is now tightly bound up with the pandemic and the great screen-time conundrum afflicting households everywhere, Kagawa’s is a pre-coronavirus imbroglio.

It started with Ichiro Oyama, the former chairman of the prefectural assembly, and his daughter, whom he had always thought spent too much time shut up in her room with games when she was younger.

For many parents, the solution might be a stern word, a confiscation of gadgets or a threat of disinheritance. Mr Oyama opted instead to whip greying local parliamentarians into a frenzy of proscription, enter a new realm of state interference in family life and enact a draconian ordinance.

One Japanese teen is prepared to fight for his right to game, crowdsourcing for a lawsuit against
One Japanese teen is prepared to fight for his right to game, crowdsourcing for a lawsuit against government guidelines on children’s gaming. (File photo: AFP/Neilson Barnard)

In January, Mr Oyama proposed a rule — the first of its kind in Japan — that would ban anyone under 18 from playing for more than an hour a day (90 minutes at weekends) on mobiles, PCs and consoles.

The rule, which adds a smartphone curfew of 9pm for those up to 15, would not be directly enforced by the state; that burden would fall on “responsible” parents mass-deputised as screen sentinels.

Two months later, the assembly — 98 per cent male and mostly aged around 70 — voted it through, casting cantankerous old Kagawa as the clear-eyed pioneer in a world groping for answers to screen addiction.

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BUT SOME PEOPLE WANT TO REPEAL THE LAW

Not so fast, says a 17-year-old from the prefecture who loves his games and views the lumberings of Kagawa’s assembly-osaurs as unconscionable over-reach.

The high schooler, who uses only the name Wataru, has begun crowdfunding a campaign to repeal the ordinance, arguing that it was arrived at unscientifically, wedges the state uncomfortably far into a matter that should be for each household to decide upon, and is in glaring breach of Japanese citizens’ fundamental right to self-determination.

Wataru’s fight might have withered, except that he has now secured the allegiance of Tomoshi Sakka — a fabulously tenacious lawyer who makes a habit of challenging legislation and its adherence to the letter and spirit of Japan’s constitution.

In Mr Sakka’s eyes, the Kagawa rule steamrollers constitutional rights to the pursuit of happiness and, because of the intertwining of games and communication, the rights to free speech.

The battle to overturn this monstrosity, he said, starts now.

BUT GAMING ADDICTION IS A SERIOUS PROBLEM

The showdown in Kagawa deserves close attention for two reasons. The first is that Mr Oyama may be on to something.

The game currently lasts only around 10 minutes, and has been offered to Itch where it will be
A person plays game at home. (File photo: AFP/Anthony WALLACE)

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Gaming addiction is a problem, the US$150 billion global games industry is becoming better at “persuasive design” (making games moreish) and many governments appear closer to deciding that intervention is a matter of public health. Few, grumble games industry heads, will get it right first time.

Last year, after four years of consultation, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to its international classification of diseases.

However fast governments may have acted otherwise, COVID-19 has squeezed parents and children into an acknowledgment of screen addiction: It was only a matter of time before the idea of screen-time limits jumped from living room to legislature.

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KEEPING POWER IN CHECK

But the greater importance of Mr Sakka’s challenge is to emphasise, once again, the preciousness of Japan’s 1947, American-authored constitution to the nation’s self-image and to public confidence that power can ultimately be checked.

Japan’s comparatively liberal response to coronavirus — its voluntary lockdowns and suggested business closures — has been contoured by the liberalism of the constitution and what, even in extremis, it will not countenance.

Lockdown-lite, along with the possible overturn of the Kagawa ordinance, may come at a cost to public health, but there will be many who quietly see that cost as worthwhile.\

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