Tough Luck

A boardgame plays up the worst nightmares of Japanese youth

01 August 2018

The Hellish Game of Life, a Japanese variation of the American board game Life, starts with a spin of the wheel. The spin assigns players a number from one to ten, which represents how many spaces they will move on the board. After the first spin, the players land on a square, draw a card and find out whether they will be a teacher or white-collar worker and be financially stable throughout the game, or be the manager of a coffee shop, dietician or flight attendant—jobs with decent remuneration but less stability.

The original game of Life depicted bright green pastures, and a jolly upward journey through life. The Hellish version envisages a downward spiral; the game’s packaging depicts a young man in a suit—referred to in Japan using the English word “salaryman”—cupping his hands together and grimacing in desperation.

The original version of the game, of which there have been 62 variants, was a wholesome family activity where players move through the conventional stages of adulthood. It was first brought to Japan in 1968, with no changes beyond the language, by Takara Tomy, a major Japanese game manufacturer and the company behind the Hellish Game of Life. In 1983, Takara Tomy released a version of the game adapted for the Japanese market, featuring Japanese holidays and pastimes, such as Lunar New Year and skiing holidays on the northern island of Hokkaido. The Hellish version was introduced in 2009, a possible response to growing pessimism in Japan over a sluggish economy and growing frustration among young people struggling to find rewarding careers. While this version is characterised by cartoonish imagery and has a tongue-in-cheek feel, it is rooted in real cultural anxiety faced by many Japanese over their life prospects in an increasingly competitive society.

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Steven Borowiec is a journalist based in Seoul. He tweets as @steven_borowiec.