I know that scores of heavily armed people are out there lying in wait to shoot me, but I can’t see them.
I know for a fact that one of them is carrying an M4 next-generation carbine rifle, Samurai Edge handgun and three nasty-looking Cyclone Impact grenades. He is also wearing body armor and a mask of the alien warrior character from the movie “Predator,” which is quite frankly terrifying.
I know that my adversaries are all out there, but all I can see are empty oil drums, stacks of tires, dark alleys and blind corners. I look at my own gun, a scuffed and battered M16 rifle. The magazine has already fallen to the ground twice and I nervously jam the heel of my hand into it, trying to make sure it will work when I need it.
I spot an abandoned car up ahead and wonder whether to make a run for it across open ground.
Nothing stirs. All is quiet.
Then, as I am summoning up the courage to make my move, I feel a sharp ping against my shoulder. I am hit.
I reluctantly raise my hand and shout the word “hit!” My participation in this round of airsoft at Tokyo Sabage Park in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture, is over. I lift up my gun, which I have not fired once in two rounds of play, above my head in surrender and sullenly trudge to the exit.
“The thing I like about airsoft is the communication involved,” says a 24-year-old man who goes by the nom de guerre “Yukisaki,” as he sits with his friends, “Fuji” and “Saw,” on a bench outside the playing area after the game. They are all dressed in full U.S. Marine combat gear, including helmets, functioning radios and tactical vests.
“Even with people you don’t know, you can watch their back and they will watch yours,” he says. “You win with other people and you lose with other people.”
Airsoft, which is known as “survival game” in Japanese, is a game in which participants try to eliminate opponents by shooting them with small plastic pellets fired from airguns. Rules differ from place to place, but the most common variant involves two teams starting at opposite ends of a large, feature-filled outdoor field trying to capture a flag in enemy territory.
Unlike paintball, which leaves visible marks on players who have been hit, airsoft relies on participants to admit when they have been shot and voluntarily leave the field. Failure to do so is frowned upon, with guilty parties — known as “zombies” — derided for their lack of honor and sportsmanship.
The game originated in Japan in the 1970s, but it has enjoyed a boom in popularity in recent years. There are currently around 50 places to play in Chiba Prefecture alone, and groups of around 100 players are common at weekends in the fair-weather months.
But to think of airsoft as simply a quasi-sport is to miss the point entirely. For thousands of weekend warriors all over the country, the pomp and circumstance of the occasion is by far the main attraction.
“My style is based on the German armed forces, and then I’ve added my own touch,” says Shota Shinozaki, a 23-year-old manufacturing industry worker from Chiba Prefecture who is dressed from head to toe in full combat gear, including microphone, replica radio headphones and a large backpack.
“I bought the gun and gear through internet auctions,” he says. “The gun itself cost around ¥100,000. The whole gear cost about ¥200,000. The thing I like about airsoft is that I can dress up in the gear that I like, with the gun that I like. I don’t really care about who wins or loses the game. As long as I can dress up like this and run about, I’m happy.”
All airsoft fields require players to wear goggles, and basic equipment, including guns, gloves, military fatigues, boots and kneepads, are typically available for hire. But many enthusiasts will spend huge sums buying their own gear, and the attention to detail on display at Tokyo Sabage Park is staggering.
LAPD riot squad officers exchange fire with Desert Storm troops. Patches and badges identify players as “Sheriff,” “DEA” and “Angel of Death.”
Replica shotgun cartridges are strapped to arms, legs, torsos — any spare inch of space available among the heaps of hardware. Some simply wear sports gear and tote huge hand cannons. Tellingly, full-length mirrors stand beside the entrances to the playing field.
“The guns used in airsoft look like real guns, so a lot of people want to complete the whole soldier look with the rest of their gear,” says 43-year-old Norikazu Sato, owner of Warriors, a shop selling airsoft guns and tactical gear in Tokyo’s Nakano Broadway shopping center.
“A lot of them study videos of combat and want to look the same as the soldiers in the videos. For example, you have no use for a compass in airsoft. However, real soldiers typically wear one on their arm, so people will wear one in airsoft just to look authentic.
“In all different countries, you get people who look up to soldiers and people who don’t,” he says. “It’s like modern-day armor. It’s just like people who think traditional Japanese armor is cool. A helmet and a tactical vest is just a modern version, and a lot of people think they look cool.”
However, military uniforms are not the only kind of costumes worn at airsoft fields. Many players dress up as characters from their favorite movies and video games, and some fields run cosplay-only sessions based on a theme such as “Star Wars.” Some players, meanwhile, even dress up as schoolgirls or “Pokemon” characters.
“The atmosphere at an airsoft field is one of anything goes,” Sato says. “It’s OK for people to dress up. Maybe they want to stand out or maybe they want to create a festival-type atmosphere. Some men come dressed as women. If you’re dressed as a woman then you might be showing a lot of leg, and that hurts when you get hit.
“For the people who dress up as real soldiers, their attitude only goes as far as dressing up. They don’t take the actual game itself really seriously. It’s just a game. They don’t insist on winning. But there are some people who take it seriously, and for them it’s like a sport. They play in the style of American paintball.”
Paintball, with its ability to clearly identify players who have been hit, lends itself more naturally to formal competition than airsoft. From its recreational beginnings in the United States during the 1980s, paintball has grown into a sport with professional teams and players, and is also used by military forces and law enforcement agencies to supplement training.
Avi Mazalto, a 40-year-old Israeli national who has lived in Japan for 15 years, owns a paintball field in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture, called War Zone. War Zone also offers airsoft as well as rock climbing and a zip line, but Mazalto, who served in the Israeli Army special forces and was also a military instructor, has little time for customers who dress up as Pikachu.
“I don’t really like those kinds of players and I don’t want to accept them on my field because it becomes a crazy mix of too many things,” Mazalto says. “Our field is more military-based. I don’t really like those kind of players who come with Pokemon clothes or stuff like that.
“Paintball people are more like sporty people, people who do snowboarding and outside things. Airsoft people are more like cosplay. They’re not really players. Some of them just come to show off their equipment. They buy quite expensive equipment — real replica guns. But those people don’t necessarily play the game. They just kid around, chat with other players and show off their equipment.”
Mazalto, who also teaches Krav Maga, a martial art developed by Israeli defense forces, believes airsoft taps into a deep-seated frustration in the psyche of pacifist Japan.
“Hollywood has recently started making many military-based movies,” he says. “People get affected by those movies, and since you don’t have a compulsory military service in Japan, even when people want to become a soldier they don’t have many chances. It’s very strict to get into the Japanese police or military. People actually want to shoot a gun and act like those heroes, but they don’t have the opportunity to do it. So they play airsoft.
“The real military is not like what they see in the movies. Sometimes the military can be boring. You can wait in the same spot for a week without any action. Sometimes you don’t get to sleep or eat properly and you are constantly under stress. So it’s not really nice and it’s not exciting. It’s more exhausting. People just see the action side. The military is not about fun. And war, when people die, when people get killed next to you, it affects you.”
Sato agrees that airsoft players are seduced by media portrayals of combat, but he also believes they are able to distinguish between the fantasy and the reality.
“A lot of our customers play shooting video games, and their knowledge of guns comes from the guns that appear in those games,” he says. “Airgun versions of those guns are available, and people see them and think ‘I’ve used that gun in a game.’ That’s how a lot of people become interested in it. Not so many of them are interested in real guns.
“There are a lot of airgun fans in their 40s and 50s who like real guns, but not so many people in their 20s and 30s. They’re interested in it from a purely design standpoint. Most airsoft players have never fired a real gun overseas. It’s not like America, where guns are part of the environment. It’s not seen as something scary here. An airgun is generally seen as a toy or a piece of equipment with which to play a game.”
After completing a safety lecture at Tokyo Sabage Park and being let loose in the playing field, it is easy to understand the attraction. The sensation of firing a machine-gun on full auto is exhilarating, and the game itself conjures up countless images of TV shows and movies.
If that sounds like the classic boy’s fantasy, it is perhaps unsurprising that around 95 percent of the players on this particular day are men. Airsoft does have a dedicated female following, however, and 26-year-old Mari Ikoma believes more women are starting to take an interest.
“This is my fourth time to play,” she says, loading more pellets into her magazine. “I was invited by a workmate the first time, someone who had done it before. I enjoyed it the first time. The impression I got was of a sport that requires a lot of energy.
“At Christmas you get people dressing up as Santa, and at Halloween you get people dressing up as ghosts. It’s not just a game, it’s also an event where people dress up. It’s good for companies as a team-building event — not just going out drinking. When I first saw it, it didn’t look like something for women. It looked like something aggressive for men. But when I tried it, I enjoyed it as a sport.”
How long airsoft’s current popularity can last, however, is open to question. Sato believes it hit its peak two years ago, when groups of more than 200 would play at weekends, but has since cooled off to “the perfect number of people to play a game.” Mazalto, meanwhile, fears the rush to cash in will bring inevitable casualties.
“When I started eight years ago, we didn’t have that many places doing airsoft,” he says. “Maybe two or three maximum. In the past four or five years it has become really popular. Many people decided it was a profitable business and it’s relatively easy to start it. They opened so many fields that customers have too many options.”
Among the participants enjoying their day out at Tokyo Sabage Park, however, the end of the party is the last thing on their minds.
The “Predator” has shed his mask and is enjoying a relaxing cigarette after running around in the warm spring sunshine in his heavy gear. His name is Kei. He is a carpenter from Yokohama who has only been playing airsoft for a year, but his passion for it is obvious. He explains that he made the dreadlocks on his mask himself out of spiral tubing.
Kei invites my colleagues and I to detonate his unused grenades in the playing area after the games have finished. Each one holds 140 pellets and costs ¥7,000, all for one loud moment of unrestrained, hedonistic glee.
He leads us back to the rest area and sparks up another cigarette.
“Everyone is different,” he says. “So if you find the style that you like and you enjoy it, I think that’s just fine.”
For a comprehensive list of venues in the Kanto area offering games such as airsoft, visit bit.ly/kanto-survival-game.