TOKYO, DEC. 12 -- A Baltimore game publisher found itself in the middle of a heated racial controversy today because one of its role-playing games uses language that is objectionable in Japan to describe a minority group long subject to discrimination here.
The Avalon Hill Game Co. has apologized and promised to rewrite the books accompanying its game called "Land of Ninja." Meanwhile, the firm's distributor here, Hobby Japan Inc., has recalled all copies of the game and canceled plans to produce a Japanese-language edition.
Hobby Japan says fewer than 100 copies of "Land of Ninja" have been sold in Japan. But the controversy the little-noticed game has sparked shows how sensitive minority concerns can be even in this extremely homogenous culture.
The group complaining about Avalon Hill's game is the Burakumin Liberation League, a militant organization formed to protect the class of Japanese known as "Burakumin," or "Village People."
The Burakumin, comprising about 3 million of the 123 million Japanese people, share the same race and language as all other Japanese and cannot be identified by appearance.
But they have been victims of discrimination for centuries. In earlier times, the Burakumin families were responsible for tasks such as slaughtering animals and digging graves, occupations considered unclean by higher strata of Japan's hierarchical society.
Today, there are books in print listing family names in such a way that Burakumin can be identified. Allegedly, people check such listings to see whether a job applicant or a daughter's boyfriend comes from the once-spurned class of people.
Until the late 19th century, Burakumin were often known as the "eta." Today, that word is an offensive term, as objectionable here as English pejoratives like "wop" would be in the United States.
But in the detailed description of historical Japanese society for its "Land of Ninja" game, Avalon Hill uses the term "eta" and defines it this way: "The untouchables; lowest social caste . . . those outside normal society such as ninja, thieves, and entertainers."
The Burakumin Liberation League criticized the game today, saying it encourages prejudice and discrimination. That prompted the Japanese distributor to pull its few copies of the game off the shelves of every store that sells it.
"Land of Ninja" was introduced in 1987 and has sold thousands of copies in the United States, Avalon Hill President Jackson Dott said today.
The game involves acting out the roles of various types of characters, some historical and some imaginary, in a setting drawn from medieval Japan.
Dott said his firm had no inkling until this week that its game used unacceptable language.
A Japanese researcher read the game manuals and informed the Japanese press and the Burakumin Liberation League of their content.
"We're sorry it happened," Dott said. "We're trying to sell fun. We do not want to offend anyone. We had no idea that this language was offensive. We will correct the product so it is not offensive."
Avalon Hill produces more than 200 role-playing games, including the well-known "Diplomacy" and a timely new product called "Gulf Strike," in which players fill the roles of George Bush, Saddam Hussein and others involved in the current Mideast crisis.