Two months of おうち時間 (ouchi jikan, time at home) has left many people with the desire to get outside and back to parks, cafes and weekend hikes. A growing number of those people, however, are making do with a game titled あつまれ どうぶつの森 (Atsumare Dōbutsu no Mori, Animal Crossing: New Horizons).

The game, known more colloquially in Japanese as あつ森 (Atsu Mori), came out on March 20 for the Nintendo Switch and falls under the category of シミュレーションゲーム (shimyurēshon gēmu, simulation games) such as The Sims that mimic real-life situations. New Horizons is also the fifth installment in the series, which began with どうぶつの森 (Dōbutsu no Mori, Animal Crossing) in 2001.

In addition to providing a welcome distraction from the 新型コロナウイルスの感染拡大 (shingata koronauirusu no kansen kakudai, spread of infection of novel coronavirus), あつ森 has been a delightful study supplement. Sure, there are the localized quirks — like the fact that recurring character たぬきち (Tanukichi) in known as Tom Nook in English — but I’ve been particularly taken with the 洒落 (share, puns).

For example, one deer character’s name is Fauna, a pun on the word “fawn,” while her name in Japanese, ドレミ (Doremi), is a nod to the word “doe” and, of course, the musical scale of do-re-mi. She ends her sentences with でしか (deshika) — which could sound like a natural play on the conjugated forms of the frequent sentence-ender です (desu, to be): でした (deshita, was), でしょう(deshō, it seems) and so on. でしか, however, contains “しか” (“shika“), the Japanese word for “deer,” so it sounds more like she is saying “dearie.” Dear and deer, でした and でしか — it’s all very punny indeed.

The 洒落 in the game are one of its linguistic charms, and anyone who studies Japanese will know that this kind of wordplay is prevalent in the humor. The first one I came across was the basic, 山梨だけど、山がある (Yamanashi da kedo, yama ga aru). Yamanashi is the name of a prefecture, while “yama nashi” means there are no mountains. Rendering it English it reads along the lines of, “They call it Yamanashi, but there are yama (mountains).” Throwing this one out at my Japanese friends will often get a groan and accusations of spouting 親父ギャグ (oyaji gyagu, dad jokes).

あつ森の洒落を分かったら、嬉しい (Atsumori no share o wakattara, ureshii, When I understand the puns in New Horizons, I’m happy). Upon catching the スズキ (suzuki, sea bass) in the game, the player exclaims, 「スズキを釣り上げた!鈴木…じゃなくて、鱸なのね!」 (“Suzuki o tsuriageta! Suzuki … janakute, suzuki na no ne!,” “I caught a suzuki! Suzuki… not that one, the other suzuki!”). This particular pun pokes fun at the common Japanese surname, 鈴木 (Suzuki). Just as スズキ are plentiful in the game, 鈴木 are abundant in the sea of Japanese society.

Sticking with fish, another 洒落 comes up when the アジ (aji, horse mackerel) is caught, 「さて、味はいかほどか?」 (“Sate, aji wa ikahodo ka?” “So, how does it taste?”). Perhaps delectable when grilled with a dash of lemon juice if we’re talking about the fish’s 味 (aji, flavor).

For 虫 (mushi, insects), the アゲハチョウ (agehachо̄, tiger butterfly) is no exception to evoking a small chuckle each time the player catches one and says, 「アゲハチョウをつかまえた!アゲアゲだ〜っ!」 (“Agehachо̄ o tsukamaeta! Age-age da~!,” “I caught a tiger butterfly! Woop, woop!”) The latter part of that statement, アゲアゲ, expresses excitement — and that’s definitely what you feel when you catch a butterfly in this digital world.

Life in a virtual paradise of your own design can be idyllic; しずえ (Shizue, Isabelle) cheering you on with a「本日もよい一日をお過ごしください!」(“Honjitsu mo yoi ichi-nichi o o-sugoshi kudasai!,” “Wishing you a nice day!”) is a sweet way to kick off the day’s errands.

Popping into タヌキ商店 (Tanuki Shōten, Nook’s Cranny) to ask,「今日のカブ価は?」(“Kyō no kabu-ka wa?,” “What’s the price of turnips today?”) may lead to a windfall in the “stalk market.” The in-game prices are no laughing matter, but the word カブ can mean both turnips (蕪) and stocks (株).

While capitalism fuels a lot of island life in あつ森, the 住民 (jūmin, villagers) that make the grind worth it are a likable cast of eight 性格 (seikaku, personality types) that include 元気 (genki, peppy), ハキハキ (haki-haki, jock), ぼんやり(bon’yari, absent-minded) and キズ (kizu, smug) animals.

It’s not hard to guess which personality type is prone to startling the neighbors by screaming 「キンニクサイコー!!!」 (Kinniku saikō!!!, Muscles are the best!!!) at any given hour.

Nor is it a stretch to hear a 元気 villager say,「そのエナメルのパンプスちょーイケてるね〜!」(“Sono enameru no panpusu chō iketeru ne~!,” “Those vinyl round-toed pumps are, like, hella stylish!”).

After a day of interacting with 住民 around the island and saving the day’s worth of work, the closing screen always reads「またいつでも遊びに来てくださいね」(“Mata itsudemo asobi ni kite kudasai ne,” “Come back and play anytime”). あつ森 isn’t exactly as thrilling as an 一人称視点シューティングゲーム (ichininshō shiten shūtingu gēmu, first-person shooting game), but that may be why, in a time of heightened 不安 (fuan, anxiety), players keep making the trip back to this delightful island.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.