A very brief history lesson: in the 19th century after Japan opened up to the West, Europeans became very interested in Japanese art. Woodblock prints like the one above, for example, became highly sought after and art collectors from Europe and America bought them up like crazy, to the point that by the 20th century many of the finest examples were only to be found outside of Japan. They were able to do so in part because the Japanese themselves didn`t place a very high value on those prints and thus works that would later be worth a small fortune were sold for mere pennies.
After Japan underwent its high growth era in the 60s and early 70s the trend partially reversed itself, with newly affluent Japanese seeking out and repatriating some of the nation`s antiques and artwork that had been sold abroad in earlier times. Of course in doing so they were paying thousands or even millions of dollars for things that had left Japan decades earlier for almost nothing.
This overly-simplified story of an episode from Japanese art history got me thinking about Japan`s retro video games. In part this is because almost anything gets me thinking of retro video games, but also it is because there seem to be some parrallels in the modern day flow of Japanese collectible games.
The basic trend that I have noticed is simply that foreigners (like myself, though I do live in Japan) seem to be buying a lot of Japanese retro games, particularly for the Famicom. The reverse, however, does not seem to be happening: there seems to be very little market in Japan for vintage games from outside of Japan.
As a random test of this I just did two searches. First I went to American Ebay and did a search for “Famicom”. That gave me 29,628 items for sale. A lot of those would be Super Famicom stuff, and of course there would also be a fair number of pirated games from non-Japanese sources like China. But just a casual scroll through the results indicates that about half of it is actual Famicom games, consoles or accessories originally marketed in Japan. So I would say there is probably close to 15,000 Famicom items available on Ebay at the moment.
In short, while this is by no means a scientific survey, I think it can safely be concluded that there is a reasonably big and active international market outside of Japan for vintage Japanese video games.
The second search I did was to try to find out what the flow was going the other way – in other words, how much of a market is there in Japan for foreign retro games? I did a few searches on Yahoo Auctions (the Japanese equivalent of Ebay) to try to tease out the scale. First I did a search for “NES”, the term which is also used in Japan to describe the American version of the Famicom. That turned up a grand total of 92 results in the gaming section, some of which were actually Famicom games. I also did a search for that other colossus of American retro gaming, the Atari 2600, and only found 19 results, all but one of which were actually Japan-released Atari 2800 games. “Colecovision” turned up zero results, while “Intellivision” only turned up 18 – all of which appear to have been games released for the Japanese Bandai version of that console.
This indicates that in terms of scale there seems to be a much much smaller market for foreign retro games in Japan than there is for Japanese retro games overseas. While large numbers of Famicom games are leaving these shores for lands far away, the Japanese don`t seem to have much interest in vintage foreign games.
This is understandable given the fact that while Nintendo was a massive cultural hit abroad, creating a natural interest in the Famicom among people who grew up with the NES, there was no equivalent American or European game maker back in the 80s or 90s which similarly impacted the Japanese market. The Atari 2800 and the Intellivision were both massive flops in Japan and after that generation it really wasn`t until the XBox came along that a serious American firm entered the console wars as a major competitor.
But that aside, the interesting question to me is what the long term effect of the seeming exodus of Famicom games from Japan will be. On the one hand, there were millions of Famicom games produced back in the day whereas there are probably only thousands of games being exported, so in terms of overall volume the effect might not be so big (though over time it might add up).
On the other hand though, it is really obvious that international demand for certain games is having a big effect on the Japanese market. Gimmick, for example, has exploded in price over the past year to the point that it is impossible to find loose copies going for less than about $200. The main reason for that isn`t because Japanese Famicom collectors suddenly had a heightened interest in the game, but because it is one of those games that was never released in America and is immensely sought after by folks over there.
I hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with that, its great that people around the world have an interest in the Famicom. I just think it is kind of interesting. It also makes me wonder if, a few decades from now, Japanese Famicom collectors will have to start buying the best games off of Ebay from American buyers because there are so few copies left in Japan, as Japanese woodblock print collectors once had to do. Food for thought anyway.