Our new Jobs in Japanese Gaming series will look at some of the different gaming jobs in Japan through interviews with people who make games happen in all sorts of ways.
For our second interview from this year’s BitSummit, an annual indie games festival held in Kyoto, we sat down with Brit-born journalist and decidedly not-a-wanker Daniel Robson. Read the first interview with video games agent and Capcom legend Ben Judd.
Daniel Robson is a Britain-born journalist who’s gone from reporting on London’s music scene to being the Chief Editor of the Japanese edition of IGN, the world’s largest gaming site covering games, films, television, comics, and technology. Published by Sankei Digital, a branch of Sankei Shimbun newspaper publisher, IGN Japan was launched in 2016 with a view to bridging the gap between the prolific world of Japanese gaming and mainstream western journalism.
Robson’s role is to build that bridge from the ground up. So what brought him here to Japan and how is he facing up to such a monster challenge?
How did you get into journalism?
The short version is that I’m from London. I was a journalist since 1999, starting out just writing music. I love music, and I enjoyed writing. I was just writing for small magazines, and then I got offered a job. That kind of snowballed into joining a magazine.
When did you move to Japan?
I moved to Japan in 2006, so by that time I was already quite well established as a journalist in Britain. I was writing mostly about music, but also about video games, pop culture and stuff like that. So then when I came to Japan, I just carried on writing initially for publications back home and then sort of slowly started planning stuff here.
I started working at The Japan Times as an editor there, writing a lot about Japanese music and introducing Japanese bands to Western audiences. But the longer I was in Japan, you know, the more video games started to take over the music for me. I was playing video games with my kids, and I became really interested in that side.
How did you transition from music writer to games writer?
Japan is obviously such an important market for video games, so there was tons of material wherever you looked. Publications outside of Japan are much more interested in Japanese video games than they are in Japanese music, unfortunately!
I was still freelancing at this point, writing for The Japan Times and for all the game magazines back in England, including Official Xbox Magazine, Official Nintendo Magazine, PlayStation Magazine, Edge and loads of other places like that. Then in the US and other countries around the world, I started to do a little bit for IGN as a freelancer.
Publications outside of Japan are much more interested in Japanese video games than they are in Japanese music, unfortunately!
Eventually, I think it was in 2015, I decided to try and work in a video game company. I went to work at Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan Studio as the community manager, which was a brand new job for them. They didn’t have the previous function like that. So, I got to go in and sort of start everything from scratch. But I didn’t really enjoy working in a corporate company very much — I left after about a year.
What happened then?
Just as I was thinking, “I’m not sure if I want to go back to media, or maybe I’ll do something else,” a couple of different mutual friends came to me and said, “You know, they’re starting up IGN in Japan and they’re looking for a chief editor. You should talk to them.”
IGN is a global site with about 30 editions and editorial teams around the world. The U.S., Australia and the UK branches are owned by one company and all the rest are licensed out. In Japan, it was licensed to Sankei Digital. That’s where I work.
Part of me was thinking, “I don’t know if I really want to go from working at Sony, which is a big corporate Japanese company, to working at Sankei which is a big Japanese media company.”
I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy it, but I really love my job here.
Could you speak Japanese when you first started working in Japan?
When I first came to Japan, I spoke hardly any Japanese. In the beginning, because I really wanted to interview all these bands that I loved, I was using a translator. I hated that because, no matter how great the translator is, there’s always something that gets lost, especially because when you’re talking to creative people like musicians. Some of that stuff can be quite hard to translate well, and I really wanted to get to a point where I could do it myself. That was my first point of inspiration.
How did you learn Japanese?
I was working a full-time job and so it was really hard to find time to study. There’s a bar near my house that is open all night. So I just used to go there every night. Wherever I was at, wherever I was coming home from, I’d stop in there for a little bit. My friends in Japan, they all spoke English. If I went to this bar, no one spoke English, so it gave me a good opportunity.
Then I started using Japanese for my work slowly but surely. I was seeing bands, recording the interview, then coming home and trying to figure it out, sometimes literally word-by-word. My Japanese was good enough to ask the questions, but not necessarily to understand the full answer. It was really painstaking for a long time but it helped me to learn.
There’s a bar near my house that is open all night. So I just used to go there every night. Wherever I was at, wherever I was coming home from, I’d stop in there for a little bit. My friends in Japan, they all spoke English. If I went to this bar, no one spoke English, so it gave me a good opportunity.
What was it like to launch IGN Japan?
To launch the site from scratch felt like it was going to be a really meaty challenge. We publish everything in Japanese and up to that point I’d mostly only ever worked as a journalist in English. I knew that it would be a huge challenge for me personally. Plus, Japan has lots of great video game media already that’s very ingrained and has been here for decades. So I also knew it would be very hard to launch a site and have people care about it.
What do you like about working at IGN Japan?
One of my favorite parts of my job at Sony was that I got to work with global teams and different studios around the world. At IGN, it’s the same because it’s such a global company. There’s no media in the world like IGN. There are a lot of opportunities to meet really interesting people with different perspectives. We launched the site in 2016, and it keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Why do you think you were hired to lead IGN Japan as opposed to a Japanese person?
You know, Sankei Digital is about 140 people, and there are maybe three or four of us foreigners. When they came to me, I said, “I’m pretty sure you don’t want me for this right here. Probably you need a Japanese person or somebody who’s been here for a long time.”
But I think from their perspective, I had a huge amount of experience in journalism, and in a particularly niche kind of journalism. I’d interviewed many of the biggest bands in Japan, so I think they understood that I knew how to deal with Japanese PR companies.
A big part of my job is relations with IGN US and all the other global editions, so it’s been an advantage that I speak English, too. At the same time, the whole company operates in Japanese. For me on a day-to-day basis, while I don’t write articles directly in Japanese, we do a lot of videos where I’m talking in Japanese in them. So my Japanese ability was an important part of it as well.
A big part of my job is relations with IGN US and all the other global editions, so it’s been an advantage that I speak English, too.
Do you have any advice for writers looking to pursue a career in gaming journalism?
As long as your employer allows you to have a second job—which in Japan they don’t always—start getting your work out there as much as you can.
At The Japan Times or here at IGN, I’ve always had dozens of writers to manage. A lot of those writers are journalists who spend all day writing for work—and a lot of those people are not. The second type are people who have a subject that they’re very knowledgeable about and they love writing, so they just do a little bit on the side. There’s plenty of people who are authorities on Japan, and yet, it’s not necessarily their full-time job. So, I think the more work you can get out there the better.
I think if it’s a world that you want to get in to, you just have to keep looking for those opportunities. Editors always want someone who knows about the topic, can write really well, doesn’t miss the deadlines, and is not a wanker.
Has the journalism industry changed in Japan since you started out?
When I first arrived in Japan, most of the foreign journalists that I would meet tended to be older guys. Nearly all of them male, generally in their 40s, 50s, maybe even 60s. There were a lot of people who had been in Japan for decades. They understood Japan very well in various ways.
But when you’re talking about pop culture stuff, it’s different. There weren’t nearly as many people writing about it. Nowadays, there’s a lot of young people and these communities talking about it.
I first started writing about Japanese music before iTunes and YouTube existed. It was very hard to get that kind of information. Now, there are blogs everywhere for that kind of thing. So from a jobseeker perspective its easier to access the industry but also more competitive.
I think video games, especially, has a really tight-knit community of foreign people who are writing about games, but also mainly localization. You come here for BitSummit, and there’s lots and lots and lots of indie game developers in Kyoto that are staffed by westerners. So I would say that there’s growth and more opportunity for foreigners in the industry.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
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Find out more about IGN Japan and follow Daniel on Twitter @NoMoreDaniels.
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