A group of people are having a picnic by a body of water underneath a coupling of cherry blossom trees. One pair is fighting over a lobster with chopsticks while another pair looks on in bewilderment, accidentally tossing wine. Another pair tightly tugs onto a fishing pole from the water.
May 28, 2021 | by Elvie
Making Phoenix Wright Canonically Asian American and Why That is Important (to Me)

Spoiler warning: This piece will allude to events that take place after the original Ace Attorney trilogy.

It is the year 2021. We are currently in the dark age of the law.

Fans of Capcom’s Gyakuten Saiban — known as the Ace Attorney series in English-language speaking regions  — have expressed both sighs of relief and shock at the announcement of the international release of the The Great Ace Attorney games as a collection.

The Great Ace Attorney titles have long been a contentious topic, with many fans wondering whether they would ever be made available outside of Japan more than five years after their initial release. For those who were able to play or watch someone else play, these games brought a refreshing take on the series with an entirely new cast of characters and location. Carrying a story set in a radically different setting, The Great Ace Attorney boldly pushes to explore more socially charged themes, all while still being faithful to the more sillier aspects that define Ace Attorney’s world. As a result, it inspired a fan group to translate the games in an effort to broaden this accessibility that Capcom seemed to not want to bring to players outside of their country.

The fandom had always felt at odds with Capcom’s marketing and international distribution of the games. If you look up “ace attorney” on Google, one of the leading questions you will first see is, “Is Ace Attorney Dead?” (And if you keep scrolling down even further, meanwhile, the Pandora’s box of fan content from memes to fanfic to doujinshi are endless; there’s truly a disconnect!) The latency between games’ releases, which some would blame as being detrimental to the game’s potential for wider success, inspired a much earlier endeavor that ended up producing a complete American-fan translation of Ace Attorney Investigations 2.

One of the speculated hurdles on what may have delayed The Great Ace Attorney’s international release is a conflict between the series’ previously established localization and its new setting. The Great Ace Attorney takes place in Japan near the culmination of the country’s Meiji period, a locale that defines each facet of its identity. The announcement trailer makes this clear, with hints of the game possibly even having dual audio options in both Japanese and English with a multilingual cast, reflecting  a crucial time when Japan was facing the impact of Westernization. With a story centered around issues like nationalism and racism, it would be ridiculous to strip it from its Japanese context in any fashion,  even more absurd than 4Kids Entertainment’s changing of the onigiri to the non-equivalent “jelly donuts” in the earlier seasons of the Pokémon anime.

Meanwhile, the official English translation of mainline Ace Attorney games have been completely removed from their native Japan setting to take place in the United States —  California specifically  and other countries’ own respective versions of the games follow suit. Characters’ Japanese names have been changed into Westernized equivalents, thus implying they are no longer Japanese but American. This would not raise questions if not for the fact that all of these games are directly connected: the central character of The Great Ace Attorney, Ryuunosuke Naruhodou (成歩堂 龍ノ介), is an ancestor to Phoenix Wright, the iconic main character of the series. He is otherwise known as Ryuuchi Naruhodou (成歩堂龍一) in the original Japanese script.

Their shared surname references an expression that roughly means “I understand” or any response of affirmation — hence the settlement on “Wright” sounding like “right” in English. However, this is one of few easier puns to tackle across the game, and more complexities arose when it came time to preserve the integrity of Japanese characters. Their first names reference the dragon, which is typically a benevolent symbol in East Asia, yet one that carries more sinister and miserly connotations elsewhere. Numerous names like these had to be swapped out with completely different equivalents, and thus “Phoenix” rose from the ashes, sourced from Greek myth instead.

With plenty of technicalities like these, excitement for The Great Attorney was muddled with confusion. It now seems like the settings of these interconnected games are completely at odds with each other! It’s great that this game is now getting localized, but does it now contradict this canon we have been fed due to the translation decisions made in the other ones? From my perspective, I think these concerns are making assumptions about a problem that does not even exist.

A trio of men are drinking alcoholic beverage and sitting on a picnic blanket underneath a large cherry blossom tree, as pink petals flourish and fall throughout the scene. A young girl is running with a dog in the background, while a pair of people are playing with the petals further in the back.

In an interview with USgamer, Alexander O. Smith, who led the localization for the very first game in 2005, discussed the difficulty alone in just maintaining the wordplay of the characters’ names. But with each passing case and each new entry in the series, it was no longer the names and gags that were the crux of translation hurdles. From the ever-increasing presence of social customs and religious traditions tied to character backstories and even turning points in the narrative, the game’s very blatant Japanese setting masquerade as a fictional United States was getting harder and harder to ignore. Sure, the gimmick that your dead mentor’s ghost now occasionally inhabits this teenage girl’s body to help your pathetic self is a little much, but there is at least a very specific cultural justification for it.

“Normally, what you do in a situation like that is leave [the location] vague”, Smith said. “[Y]ou adapt the cultural references that will go over the heads of your audience”. Smith later ran into a particular case in which the specificity of the game’s original Japanese setting tied to an important piece of evidence. Even more cases later depended on referring to actual time zones and locations, which are key in how these scenarios would be solved and could no longer be “[left] vague.” “I know this has become an issue in later games, especially—the difficulty in selling where the game is set”, he said. “The Japanese references have gotten layered on heavier and heavier and heavier.” While Smith is currently based in Japan, and continues to do translation work for games and even other industries, there was a disconnect to this idea that these Japanese references could not find a place in an American setting. Smith perhaps struggled with the possibility of a “melting pot” concept for the games while not living in the States himself.

It was clear that the series’ English-language localization needed a pivot under someone who had the proper background and touch to balance the game’s now fully embraced American setting while respecting its Japanese intent. When Janet Hsu took over localization of the games starting with Justice For All in 2006 (Adam Smith briefly returned to Capcom to lead the localization for Apollo Justice in 2008), she wanted to “recreate the feeling and experience Japanese gamers had in a way that is understandable to a Western audience”. Hsu has written several blog posts chronicling her localization adventures and communication with Shu Takumi, the creator of the series. By projecting her own experiences having lived in different countries as an Asian woman, she was able to approach the games that interpreted the world of Ace Attorney taking place in “an alternate universe where anti-Japanese sentiments and anti-immigrant laws were not enacted, and Japanese culture was allowed to flourish and blend into the local culture in the same manner as other immigrant cultures”.

In an effort to simply fill in the gaps previous localization decisions have created, Hsu redacted one of many ugly parts of American history in an effort to instead imagine a more idealized, but still imperfect society. As an Asian American myself, to see a lot of thought put into navigating a tricky canon by turning it into something meaningful for the Asian community is a huge deal.

There were slivers of this cultural flavor that constantly popped up in the games, and it remains unclear to me as to why dramatic changes to undo its presence were necessary. One example of this is the recurring joke that Maya Fey (Mayoi Ayasato 綾里真宵) is obsessed with burgers. In the original Japanese text, she is obsessed with ramen. Why was this necessary to swap out to begin with? Even if more authentic ramen and all of its variants are more commonly found on the blocks and within pantries of Asian communities, it’s safe to say knowledge of this food item is not unknown to our globalized world. As if ramen has not been a known food staple in the United States entering the latter half of the 21st century? As if college students everywhere don’t eat and breathe Nissin Cup Noodles as the high sodium fuel to procrastination?

A Facebook post from a page called "Ace Attorney". The post, attached with a photo of a bowl of ramen, reads "It's #NationalHamburgerDay! Who else is celebrating with a tasty to-go burger from their favorite stand?"

Although mostly a comedic bit, this is poignantly used as a storytelling thread to refer back to Phoenix Wright’s connection with Maya when she is not present in Apollo Justice. The second case in the game introduces a ramen noodle vendor in which Maya and Phoenix were frequent customers to his father. In this same case, we learn that Phoenix’s life has plummeted to an all-time low, but he still goes to this ramen stand with his adopted daughter — as if trying to pass on a positive tradition to her and to fill a gap he no longer has. At this point in the chronology of the series, the player is supposed to feel all sorts of emotions from this information! The titular character of the game, Apollo Justice (Housuke Odoroki 王泥喜 法介), constantly resisted trying the ramen and his slow acceptance of it (albeit still with disdain) serves as a symbolic acknowledgement of his role as a new main character in this series. But because we have been fed up to this point that Maya specifically loves burgers, that this whole time ramen has been a symbolic food for all of these characters might come off as very sudden.

The impact of these small relationships is lost because the original trilogy swapped Maya’s gluttony for noodles with a different type of food. Maya’s eventual return to the games poked fun at this, commenting at some point she would like to try an “extra-large” Hamburg steak — a German-originated beef patty dish since absorbed into Japanese cuisine and other Asian cultures that is basically just a burger without the bun — over a ramen bowl. The script made both ends meet to pretty much suggest she is obsessed with both burgers AND ramen. US-based marketing content for the game have also occasionally made fun of this now permanently fixed gag. This might very well be Ace Attorney’s “jelly donuts” equivalent.

A young woman with long black hair, a portion of it in a high bun, sits behind a set of bars. With her hands folded, she says, presented in a dialogue box, "I think I'll get the extra large Hamburg steak topping on my salty bowl! Best of both worlds!"

I would like to imagine a world where the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 did not happen, banning migration from China for the sake of “racial purity”. I would like to imagine a world where the Immigration Act of 1924 also never happened, a federal law that banned immigration from Asia and the Eastern hemisphere to “to preserve the ideal of US homogeneity.” As a Filipino, where would I be in this universe if the exclusionary terms set by the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 did not perhaps influence the decisions made by earlier generations of my family?

If not for these racist barriers that have heavily influenced migration trends from Asia to the United States in the modern century, how different would the country look like today? These are lost generations of “hyphenated Americans”, and this interpretation of the Ace Attorney localization has considered the possibilities that these people could have been Phoenix Wrights, Apollo Justices, and many others. If it wasn’t for the manufactured obstacles that stopped so many people from professing the right to be vocal about their identity in our world, at the very least, these video game characters can be validated and build legacies in their worlds.

History ended up taking a different turn and Asian Americans now make up a huge portion of California’s population. The state has the largest concentration of Asian Americans living within the mainland region of the United States. It should not be difficult to imagine a slightly different scenario where Asian Americans would make up the dominant demographic of an alternate reality California instead, if not funneled by some history revisionism. On the other hand, instead of that reality, we unfortunately live in one where some people can’t imagine a more multicultural world where the experience of white Eurocentrism is no longer the default option.

It should not be weird to imagine a city where shrines adorn the every few blocks you walk by. It should not be weird to see storefronts donning vibrant, red decorations and cute, gilded illustrations of animals on a cold day in February. Some people also prefer to start hanging their Christmas lights in September! It should also not be weird to immediately remove your shoes, dirtied and worn from the outside, when you enter a home. (Please, I beg of you!)

These may be unfamiliar concepts to others, but to me, they are just a few examples of things that are normal to my everyday way of living, my upbringing, and my own integration and interaction with other Asian cultures — all while still tied to an existence living in the United States. When confronted with a different image of what “American” can be, it is considered the incorrect one. There exists a conditioned mindset that expresses a genuine terror over becoming the new “minority”, which only speaks to the hurdles that marginalized communities continue to still face while being othered to this day.

Elements of Phoenix Wright as a character are intentionally left blank due to his nature as a “cipher” character for the player (This even gets to a point in which something as mundane as what his bedroom looks like is controversial). It is hard not to fill in those empty pages wondering if he is a first-generation immigrant that adapted a new name distinct from his original Japanese name. I know many people in my own life that have two names, simply choosing to use one over the other on paper. Although no longer a mandated practice, some people immigrating to the United States still debate about anglicizing their names in fear of scrutiny and being subjected to bias. Many change their names on their resumes, especially Asian-language based names, in fear of discrimination in the workforce. What if his Japanese parents just wanted to give him a non-Japanese name without any pressing reason? Surnames can also easily naturally change across generations. This opens up another door to the idea that Phoenix Wright could be of mixed race. The possibilities of ever further exploring his (now canonical) Japanese ancestry should be a non-issue.

This tiny revision can also apply to a plethora of other cast members, a simple gesture that undoes the accidental erasure of their racial identities of being Japanese where it can now be made significant once again. What about the “German” von Karmas? Guess what? They’re Japanese too!

A group of people are having a meal of hot pot in a small, intimate apartment space and an array of food is on display on a table in front of them. A TV in the background shows a blonde-haired man singing into a mic. A young girl with hair tightly tied up in a high bun hovers over the scene behind a couch, wearing a light blue kimono.

I do not blame the few who saw The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles announcement only to react with confusion, immediately jumping to the dire conclusion that the localization team ended up digging a hole for themselves for the rest of the series by displacing its original setting. For me however, it was easy to imagine a man who was stripped of his Asian roots to be commodifiable in both the land he now lives in, and to the players of his own game. We are so used to the consumption of media where the protagonists are white-passing characters or of some sort of ambiguous fictional ethnicity as to not rustle particular feathers, that I myself often fall into the trap of feeling like something is wrong in cases where a character is depicted otherwise.

Although more Asian Americans are now increasingly practicing and studying law, there still remains a gap when it comes to their numbers in more visible leadership positions. Not only would it be interesting to see this representation of Asian Americans in law, but it is an affirmation to see more Asian Americans in video games at large.

There are numerous Asian characters in fighting games like the Street Fighter franchise and Mortal Kombat, but those characters come from a different experience compared to diasporic Asians who do not live in or were not raised in their ancestral countries. Games like these are also set in the mainland Asian region or something allegorical to it, like the Yakuza franchise, Sleeping Dogs, and Shenmue. The few characters that do remain coded as Asian in Ace Attorney’s localization have been presented as foreigners to the game’s setting in the United States. For instance, several significant characters in the Investigations games hail from Zheng Fa, a fictional country that might be inspired by China.

Characters in major releases like Metal Gear and Ada Wong from the Resident Evil series are Asian American, but that representation still remains few and far in-between. Other names that I can think of off the top of my head are: Faith Connors from Mirror’s Edge, Ashley Mizuki Robbins from the now relatively obscure Another Code games, and Chell from Portal.  It would be a significant inclusion to finally bring to the table this everyday man who fights less with his fists and more with his wits, all aided with the power of (usually unfortunate) luck. (He also still manages to fulfill the stereotype by being in a fighting game in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3!)

A colorfully illustrated collage of various characters from The Great Ace Attorney series. A young man wearing a black uniform firmly stands in the center, closest to the foreground, pointing to something off-frame.

Just make it canon: Phoenix Wright is a Japanese American man. The series’ localization team cannot reset the path they have laid in front of them without destroying it, completely obliterating the composition established in Ace Attorney games for English-speaking fans. Instead, this should be taken as an opportunity to move forward and establish a new normal in order to imagine a future and America where these characters rightfully deserve to be unequivocally and unapologetically Asian in without scrutiny or censorship.

It is the year 2021. We are still currently in the dark age of law. The scent of dill from a fresh batch of borscht fills the restaurant’s chilly air as a Japanese American man tinkers with a piano’s keys. He thinks about the dire circumstances of his present. He realizes it has been one whole year since becoming a father. He wonders how much he can make later that night. He is unaware that several years from now, he will be able to reclaim his future and once again, be himself.

Elvie is a lost creature wrought out of recycled materials from New Jersey. She not only writes, but produces art, and is a passionate Vegeta apologist.

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