Japan has influenced the creation of many forms of literature, with one of the most distinctive being cyberpunk. Tropes of this sci-fi subgenre include advanced, dystopian cities, corrupt mega corporations, oppressed outsiders fighting to bring down the machine and Japanese aesthetics front and centre.
This kind of techno-japonisme is a major influence in Cyberpunk 2077, painting Japanese culture with a sense of otherness that makes it both frightening and exotic. Let’s dive deeper to understand how Japanese culture has shaped the world of Cyberpunk 2077.
Japan’s origins in cyberpunk
First, it’s important to understand how Japan fits into the cyberpunk category. The origins of the genre are rooted in Western fears about Eastern imperialism becoming the dominant force in the world. Asian symbolism is often used to highlight the future of technology and presented in dystopian settings.
At the heart of it all is Japan, a country that was seen as a technological powerhouse at the same time the cyberpunk genre was developing in the 1980s. Cities like Tokyo have inspired the sprawling, urban hellholes that have become synonymous with the cyberpunk aesthetic and this is certainly felt in the layout of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City.
The Japanese aesthetic is personified in Night City’s Japantown, a district that’s made up of all the cliches that you can think of and was likely influenced by Kabukicho in Tokyo. There’s love hotels, hostess bars, ramen joints, karaoke clubs, pachinko parlours on every corner.
Japantown is billed as a place for tourists to explore and for the corpos – Cyberpunk 2077’s equivalent of corporate agents – to blow off steam. It’s a place of many contradictions and CD Projekt Red’s Lead Environment Artist Kacper Niepokólczyck commented on how Japantown was created.
“The district is packed with people from both the lower and higher strata of Night City. The social layers are mixed. It is overcrowded, and that is why those who were able to move up the social ladder started populating geographically higher parts of the city. To support their needs, shops, bars, and vendors began opening there. Bridges from one building to another were built, and it created a kind of its own ecosystem above.”
A major threat in the game is the Arasaka Corporation, presided over by the powerful Arasaka family. One of the three most influential corporations in the world, Arasaka perpetuates the Yellow Peril trope of having a hold over the most powerful city on American soil.
Depending on player choices, the protagonist V can choose to fight against or work with Arasaka to achieve their own ends. But regardless of this choice it doesn’t change the fact that the Arasaka family are presented as greedy foreigners who’ve encroached on American territory, personifying otherness to an extreme degree.
Japanese fashion and motifs
Japanese culture can also be seen in how the people of Night City dress and live their lives. An example is Johnny Silverhand, one of the main characters of the Cyberpunk series and an important character in the game.
Silverhand is an anti-establishment rockerboy and the lead singer of the band SAMURAI. He’s locked in a never ending war against Arasaka and the other corporations, wanting to free the common man from their oppression.
For a time, SAMURAI was Johnny’s weapon against Arasaka. The band spewed rebellious lyrics that incited people to fight back, while appropriating Japanese symbols to get their message to the world.
This can be seen in the SAMURAI logo. Despite being named after the famed Japanese warriors, the band didn’t use an actual samurai. The logo is an oni, a Japanese demon that’s associated with striking fear into people.
Perhaps this was deliberate on Silverhand’s part. He wanted to use a rebellious image as the antithesis to Arasaka, to ‘fight fire with fire,’ or simply because he viewed all of Arasaka as a demon to be slayed.
Whether it’s architecture or fashion, the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and hits all the high notes of the cyberpunk genre. While there’s a heavy reliance on stereotypes and appropriation, one could argue that is the true essence of what makes cyberpunk stories so compelling.