Sifting through the clutter just on our Tokyo apartment’s dining table, the maru circle symbol – mostly accompanied somewhere nearby with its opposite, the batsu cross – makes 34 separate appearances.
Wherever you look, they are there: Shibuya ward’s new recycling guidelines; the assembly instructions for a standard lamp; teachers’ marks on the children’s homework. If the search were extended across the whole house, the maru-batsu appearances would certainly number in the thousands.
This ubiquitous pair, after all, are celebrities in the theatre of Japanese communication – whether written, emblazoned in lights, formed by a person’s arms or waved on garish paddles in a game show. The circle, by long tradition, means yes, OK, good or correct. The naysaying cross tells you something is wrong, bad, against the rules or not in your interests.
So when Sony produced its first PlayStation games console in 1994 and needed symbols to differentiate the two most important buttons on its revolutionary new controller, this was the duo it chose. Immediately, the rift opened: that moment when globally ambitious technologists were forced to raise their heads from the blueprints and decide how to work with the regional variations of human behaviour. The circle and cross may have explicit connotations in the land where the PlayStation was dreamt up, but can mean something else in countries where, for example, people vote in elections by putting a cross against their preferred candidate’s name.
In Sony’s case, and despite the added hassle, the answer was to localise. For PlayStation owners in Japan, the circle button would agree with things or cause some positive action in a game, while the cross would cancel, reverse or stop. In Sony’s biggest overseas markets, that function was switched and the cross was the default symbol of action, positivity and advance.
For a quarter-century and three subsequent generations of PlayStation consoles, these two systems muddled uncomfortably along, with the button-based canyon between Japan and the rest of the world widening. Menu navigation habits bedded in over decades with the players; the games industry diversified and cross-pollinated; and the global PlayStation user base soared beyond 100 million. Some games offered players reconfiguration options, but often the controls of Japanese games felt unnatural or counter-intuitive to western gamers, and vice versa.
But now, a couple of weeks ahead of the launch of the PlayStation 5, Sony has made a remarkable decision: the function of the circle and cross buttons on the DualSense controller will, for the first time, be globally standardised on the new system. In a move that has stirred a stew of bemusement, resignation and horror among Sony’s domestic fanbase, the non-Japanese configuration has prevailed.
The online reactions, whether accusing Sony of “betraying” its Japanese roots, of discrimination, of treachery, of cravenly bending to foreign pressure or of abandoning its domestic fans, arrive from a predictable angle. Some concede that Sony is merely – and belatedly – accepting the inevitable, while others rage that “inventors’ rights” mean that the Japanese company should have had the gumption to impose the Japanese configuration on the rest of the world. Corporate Japan, they note, does not automatically feel under pressure to conform to globalised standards, especially where doing so would trample on a tradition: falling stocks continue to appear on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s trading screens in green and turn red when they rise, no matter what happens elsewhere.
It may feel like a lot of fuss over a couple of buttons, but Sony’s decision is profoundly significant. Corporate Japan talks a good game on globalisation, but decisions like these are often where it quietly balks. Sony’s move suggests a definitive jettisoning of the idea that Japan, as its home market, should be accorded any particular favour when that market is inexorably shrinking and the company’s greater interest is to be global.
No matter how fervently Sony’s Japanese staff and customers feel the PlayStation is a device of Japan, it has become, over 25 years, a global console. The timing of the X-O switch is critical. With the launch of the PlayStation 5, Sony will go head-to-head with Microsoft’s new console in a contest on which Sony’s fortunes heavily depend. More than ever, the fight will be global and a message of non-parochialism must be transmitted to Sony’s staff in Japan. It needs them to vote for globalisation with an X, even if, in their heads, they are still voting O.
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