The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Games in Japan

Taiju Sawada

September, 2000

Traditional Board Games

Except for computer games, the number of traditional game players is much larger than non-traditional ones. Shogi is the most popular game in Japan. Mahjongg is also very popular but is seen as a gambling game. Go is not played as much as either game (many people, myself included, think that Go is difficult. I feel that Go is truly a gamer's game) but is still very popular. Shogi is played everywhere, by people of all ages (um, infants normally can't play) both seriously and casually whereas Go players tend to be older. Mahjongg is particularly popular among college students. There are many Shogi/Go/Mahjongg clubs in town and they charge entrance fees and rent play space.

Playing Cards

There are not so many serious playing card game players, because, in Japan, playing card games are not for gamers. All playing card games listed in are played frequently (except Two-Ten-Jack, in my opinion). Almost of them are children's game, but students like these games as time fillers at lunch or on a trip.

Other Traditional Games

Chess has serious players in Japan, too. Reversi and Renju have a lot of casual gamers. Children like to play various games using a Shogi board. Hanafuda games are also played in family gatherings. Domino tiles are well known, but no one knows the rule of the games using Domino tiles.


While games only attract men, puzzles are also loved by women. Solving pencil puzzle is a common hobby of housewives. You can see piles of pencil puzzle magazines at any book store, and jigsaw puzzle boxes at any toy store.

Trading Card Games

Although I said the number of non-traditional non-electric game players is smaller, there are a few exceptions. One of them is, of course, Trading Card Games. (GGA - More commonly referred to as Collectible Card Games or CCG's in the western world.) After the success of Magic: The Gathering, TCG is now the buzz word in the Japanese game industry. Various publishers sell various games, and some of them are very popular. Due to Pokemon's massive success even elementary school children play TCG's. I suppose there are millions of TCG players are in Japan and many of them are under 15. Anytime, anywhere they've got their cards spread out.

Famous Games

The other exceptions are Uno, The Game of Life, and Monopoly. These are very popular. And yet, Uno is a time-filler and Life is a children's toy, so Monopoly is the only serious, fun non-traditional board game that "non-gamers" know. Some dexterity games like Jenga are given to children.

Role Playing Games

In early to middle 1990s, the RPG market was larger than it is today - still RPG industry did not have a half-million seller rulebook. According to NHK's (the Japan Broadcasting Corp.) research in 1997, the number of RPG players was 100,000. I guess the number is lower now. And there are many people (young people, because older people don't know of the existence of RPGs) who have a prejudice against RPGs. Even though, some publishers release new domestic RPGs that sell only 1,000 copies as few hobby shops and book stores carry them. (I have heard that a few "best sellers" will sell over 10,000 copies though.) Several American RPG's are translated and played as well as domestics. A few people play non-translated American RPG's. There are RPG "conventions" although generally these are only around 10-40 people. Most players are teenager or early 20s, and few players are over 40. (*)Oh, I must say, I heard that a few "best seller" sell over 10,000.

Board/Card Games

The number of German style board game players has increased the last five years but is still smaller than the roleplaying audience, I suppose(*). Most people, regardless of their age, aren't aware of these games. There are no domestic games and very few Japanese translations. So we buy these games from import game shops (which are even harder to get than roleplaying games because those are at least available at some book stores. If you don't live in big city, mail order is the only way to get Board/Card Games). Some shops deal Rio Grande/Mayfair's English versions but usually shops sell the original German version with a Japanese translation. Almost every game from the major labels is available, with 1-6 months delay. German-style board gamers are a bit older than roleplayers. Mainly 20s, and I can see gamers over 50. Play style of board gamer is similar to roleplayers but board gamers are a bit more sociable, enough to invite their non-gamer friends to join in. Maybe one of the reasons is, as I said, no prejudice is there against board games. Many of American games are played by old fans only, but casual gamers are now aware of some lighter games like Wizards of the Coast and Cheapass games.

(*) In an article about board games in November 1998, a manager of Ravensburger said that, the total sales of the Scotland Yard Japanese language edition was 5,000, and none of other titles had sold over 1,000 copies. (At one point Japanese language versions of Ravensburger games had been published. Ravensburger discontinued this in the early 1990s.) This is the foundation of my supposition.


The number of wargame players is far smaller than any genre I've mentioned. The wargame market still exists as there are two wargame magazine-with-games being published. So wargamers can play new domestic/translated games at regular intervals and I envy them at this point. The average wargamer is usually over 30, and they have been playing wargames since the 1980s, when the market was so much bigger that huge toy makers published them and they even had TV commercials.

- Taiju Sawada

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