TOKYO — Until recently, the only opportunity that Wataru, a 17-year-old high school student in Japan, had to play a hero was when he immersed himself in online role-playing games.
But after the government of Kagawa prefecture on the island of Shikoku moved to limit the amount of time young people could spend playing video games or using the internet, he donned the mantle of crusader for the rights of families to decide for themselves how much gaming is too much.
He has enlisted the help of one of the country’s premier lawyers to sue the government. If everything goes according to plan, he could become one of the very few people in Japan to have won a constitutional challenge to the nation’s laws.
“I thought, rather than waiting for someone to take action on my behalf, if I took action for myself, that could have a powerful impact on society,” Wataru, whose last name is being withheld because he is a minor, said during a recent video interview (which used up part of his daily allotment online).
In April, Kagawa became the first jurisdiction in Japan to enact regulations intended to address addiction to video gaming by asking parents to set time limits — no more than 60 minutes on school nights and 90 minutes on weekends. The rules apply to anyone under 20 years old, the age of majority in Japan, and while they carry no enforcement mechanism, there is heavy social pressure to follow official suggestions.
Under the best of circumstances, the rules would be a hard sell in Japan, the birthplace of the Mario Bros. and Pac-Man. But the country, like many others, has been grappling with concerns that long hours playing video games could damage children’s physical health, social ties and school performance.
The World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to a list of officially recognized diseases in 2018. Efforts to curb the problem have focused on education and tighter regulation of the gaming industry, rather than difficult-to-enforce restrictions on individual use.
In the European Union and Britain, regulators have considered rules aimed at limiting casino-like features that game makers employ to promote addictive behavior. In Japan, the national government has brought together experts like child psychologists and video game executives to provide recommendations on how to tackle the issue.
Kagawa, however, moved ahead on its own, prodded by Ichiro Oyama, a former chairman of the prefectural assembly and the head of a political action group aimed at fighting video game addiction.
Oyama is an ultraconservative who has worked to change public perceptions about Japan’s wartime atrocities and has advocated reintroducing traditional family values into the country’s educational system. The new regulations show an ideological slant, including language that describes video games as a threat to Japanese families.
Oyama’s push for the rules sprang from concerns over his daughter’s behavior in elementary school, he said in an interview with The Hokkaido Shimbun. He discussed his surprise at how she would retreat to her room with friends to play video games.
Oyama said in the interview that he hoped to nationalize his efforts. Only the city of Odate in Akita prefecture has followed suit, but it has put its regulation on pause, citing the legal challenge.
Wataru, and those who support his cause, believe that there are better ways to address the problem of gaming addiction. They argue that the Kagawa rules lack a scientific basis, infringe on individual rights and are an unacceptable intrusion by the state into family life — an issue that is particularly relevant to Wataru, who is being raised by a single mother.
He has found a strong advocate in Tomoshi Sakka, a lawyer who has agreed to sue the government on his behalf. Sakka expects the suit to take a few years to work its way through the legal system after he submits it to the prefectural court this summer.
Sakka’s policy of accepting all clients regardless of whether they can pay him has meant that he has worked on a wide range of cases, from criminal trials to divorce proceedings. In his free time, he dabbles in constitutional law.
For a hobbyist, he has been enormously successful. In the postwar era, there have been only 10 successful constitutional challenges to Japan’s laws. Sakka won the most recent one, single-handedly challenging a law that prevented women from remarrying within 6 months of divorce.
Sakka’s record is one reason that Wataru’s case has attracted serious attention in the legal community and thrust the teenager into the national media spotlight.
Sakka thinks his odds of winning are good. Kagawa’s regulations, he believes, violate the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and limits on the government’s authority. In addition, Japan’s highest court appears to have become more sympathetic to constitutional challenges in recent years: Five of the 10 winning rulings have been handed down since 2000.
Other experts, although supportive of Wataru’s argument, are less sure about the lawsuit’s chance of success.
Tokihiro Matsumoto, a lawyer and member of Parliament who opposes the regulations, said they “definitely violate the Constitution.” Still, he added, “Wataru’s chances of winning are pretty low.”
“To win a constitutional challenge, there must be a violation of an individual’s rights,” he said, “for example, a punishment or an arrest.”
Since Kagawa’s regulations carry no penalties, it is difficult to establish a concrete impact on children’s rights, Matsumoto said.
At the same time, though, he noted that even mere recommendations from the authorities could create drastic changes in the behavior of individuals and institutions in Japan. He cited the country’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic, in which the government only requested that people reduce social contact and they did so even without the threat of penalties.
Concern in the Kagawa case has focused on the schools, which in Japan have broad powers to impose sanctions on children and their parents. The country’s teachers are notorious for controlling their students’ clothing and even their home lives, going so far in some cases as to tell them what kind and color of undergarments to wear, or forcing them to dye their naturally brown hair to match their classmates’ black hair.
“That incredibly intense pressure is one of the good and bad things about Japan,” Matsumoto said, and “teachers at schools may go overboard in trying to uphold the language of the regulations.”
Kagawa approved its rules at a time — during the coronavirus pandemic — when children can hardly avoid screen time, and many parents are only too happy to give it to them, because playgrounds and sports clubs are closed.
Wataru says he’s no more interested in video games than a “regular high school student.” When not working part time at McDonald’s, he dabbles in Puzzle & Dragons and Monster Strike, Japanese games that combine role-playing and Tetris-like elements, as well as the third-person shooter game Fortnite.
He is also no advocate of civil disobedience. Despite his opposition to the rules, he has decided to respect them.
But he plans to fight them no matter how long the legal process takes, he said.
“The kids who are younger than me are still going to be affected,” he said. “If I don’t do something, who will?”
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