Persona 4 is available on Playstation 2. Persona 4 Golden, an expanded version, is available on Playstation Vita and PC (Steam).
I'll be honest; I had very different post brewing back in May, about an entirely different topic. Arguably a more fun one. But a lot has happened since then, both in the world at large and in a recent title release, and it's created an intersection that I can't pass up.
So today I'm setting my sights on a particular character. Your right-hand man and best buddy in Persona 4 and its prequels. An all-around useful party member. And a shining example of the missteps that Persona 4 makes with its messaging.
As a preamble, to be clear, I adore the Persona games (Revelations aside). From 3 onward, they become a wonderful hot-pot of genres that I love (JRPG, life simulator, and visual novel). They hit a rare balance for a role-playing video game in being genuinely character-driven as often as they are plot-driven. Heck, the recent release of Persona 5 Royal was one of the few times in recent memory I got excited to re-play a game, even at a threatening 100-hour play time.
And I'm also terribly aware that, even just statistically, Yosuke is a favorite character for somebody who'll read this. He's the first party member that the game lets you bond with, and the writing does a great job of rotating him through “straight man” and “butt monkey” roles. And that's perfectly fine; I don't want to take that away from anyone.
But both these games and Yosuke specifically have their problems.
To dig into those, we'll have to talk some spoilers – mostly about Persona 4, but also in very vague detail about its sibling games. If you haven't played Persona 4 yet and want to go in completely fresh, go do that and come back. This article isn't going anywhere.
All bets are off from the other side of the image.
So let's jump to the meat of my problem with this guy:
He's kind of a garbage friend.
Not to you, of course. He latches onto the player right away at the game's start, and you get a whole story arc between just the two of you to develop that partnership on your own time. He opens up to you, you lend him an ear. Yosuke and the player character? Healthy relationship.
Yosuke and your other party members? Not so much.
It starts as soon as you walk in on his existing friend group. He pretty readily makes needling jabs at classmates Chie and Yukiko, both of whom simply shrug him off. Sure, a continuous low-level roast is reasonably believable behavior from high schoolers who have been stuck with each other for years. Friends rib each other and all.
His behavior kicks up when Teddie enters the story. While Teddie isn't malicious by any stretch, Yosuke is very vocal about how Teddie comes across as uncanny and annoying. And, to be fair to Yosuke, I don't like Teddie's character any better than he does, and Yosuke eventually gets saddled somewhat against his will with housing the thing. Still, you get more of an ongoing sense that Yosuke's behavior is a function of him rather than his specific relationship with Chie and Yukiko.
And then Kanji shows up.
The two get off very much on the wrong foot, and stay that way for most of the game. Kanji comes off his thuggish behavior fairly quickly, learning to be more trusting, but Yosuke is less prone to budge. He seems to not fully buy into the idea of a guy who's openly enthusiastic about “feminine” hobbies like textile work – the whole conceit of Kanji's character.
And so does what he's done with everyone else in his life and takes some verbal swings at Kanji. This after, of course, Yosuke spent a whole arc of the story exploring Kanji's subconscious, making it overwhelmingly clear that Kanji's main fear is being ostracized for his emotional tendencies. Not that that seems to register much.
So depending on you you interpret his teasing of Naoto (the context of which is a whole other kettle of fish), the only party members he doesn't treat this way are the player character (because the player character in a role-playing game is always a Very Special Person) and Rise (who happens to be a famous pop idol that he, well, idolizes). And it's persistent, even after other members of the team repeatedly explain to him in no uncertain terms that his serial behavior is upsetting Kanji.
Not a great look.
Making “exasperated” a key character tic is funny in very short amounts. Played continuously, Yosuke reads more like a whiny teen who's too comfortable with casually bullying his friends about.
And, to some extent, that's fine. It's not a revolutionary idea that morally-impure characters can be some of the most complicated and interesting. But Persona 4 just doesn't seem interested in engaging with that; Yosuke seems to skate by with negligible repercussions for how he treats others. Despite the game's 80+ hours of runtime and a script with a higher word-count than Dune, he never has an open (or any) conversation about that tension with anyone.
Other characters treat him as an also-ran for other, unrelated (and frequently ill-defined) reasons, sure, and that's a whole other flavor of Not Okay. But it's also far dissociated with Yosuke's own behavior. And on a meta-level, Yosuke has been treated in every spinoff since like your goofy best-buddy, with all the rougher edges to his character not bearing mention.
Even setting Yosuke's treatment of Kanji aside (which we definitely shouldn't), he's symptomatic of a problem that Persona has very off-and-on – and that JRPGs can have in general.
The series goes from being perfectly willing for the player to very casually and openly declare their affection for a same-sex party member in Persona 2: Innocent Sin to dropping any such option in every game since except the PSP-only Persona 3 Portable (even then, between a female player character and a female-coded robot). It gets even more zig-zaggy in Persona 5 where an implicit drag queen character (if not a transgender one) is introduced without anyone batting an eye, but five minutes later a character is “subjected to” a pair of crossdressing men who are played as overtly predatory for a cheap throwaway gag. And there's a scene in Persona 4 Golden about exploiting a character's discomfort with their body, in which every female party member openly participates despite their otherwise largely respecting her boundaries.
Side note: Yosuke's tendency to conflate “likes cute things” with “camp gay” arguably isn't helped by the presence of a dummied-out route-branching flag and unused dialogue, implying that Yosuke was originally a planned romantic interest for the main character. But that content isn't in the final game, so it's not really part of what Persona 4 is today, and I'm way under-qualified to be unpacking that baggage anyway.
And that's only pointing fingers at the more overt examples.
As much as it paves its road with good intentions, the games' writing regularly seems unwilling to make strong statements, and regularly ends up doubling back on itself instead.
Persona 4 declares its slogan as “pursuing your true self”. But in practice, one party member goes from an initial tendency to sate their family's wishes, to a desire to leave their hometown entirely, to an acceptance of their duty to their family, implying that both A: Their “pursuit” leads them on a goose chase and B: that choice were always binary, with no middle ground for iterative growth or a nuanced opinion on the matter. Self-discovery is just a flat circle, apparently.
A Persona 5 Confidant sees you help to “emotionally reform” a teacher. Ultimately, they rededicate themselves as an educator top doing what's right and fair for their students. Which you can immediately jeopardize by entering a relationship with that same character, in that same scene. The message matters, right up until it might slightly conflict with player agency (which still remains limited in other ways).
And any of that character development tends to stay way outside of the game's actual story, since it all happens in little sidequest-like bubbles that happen completely independently of the main plot – if at all. The game doesn't plan for the idea that your uncle may still be apprehensive about you or be your literal best friend as of September 28th; within the script, he has to treat you in the same way every time for that all-important Plot Train to keep chugging.
As a positive side-note, I want to point out that Persona 3 and 5 both have positive counter-examples of this. On top of social links, Persona 3's cast have personal arcs explored in the core, unmissable dialogue that play off of shared events as they happen, giving each a distinct sense of growth independent of the player. And there's a whole arc in Persona 5 where two main characters openly feud over their mutual, long-standing treatment of each other – and it directly affects the available party in dungeons.
So Persona 4 doesn't always uphold its own case. The game presents and broadly supports a character, but won't make any consequences stick to the character who actively undermines him, and otherwise can seem uncommitted to its messaging.
So what do you do with that?
I hesitate to say that you leave it to players to make their own judgement call about what makes for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Plenty have done that already, and enough have landed on the “just immature and misguided” interpretation of Yosuke that he regularly wins fan popularity polls and has been seemingly absolved of his karma in the many spin-off titles where he appears. By not addressing it, ATLUS has arguably validated his behavior in the long-term.
But what else can we do but recognize it, call it out, and demand that the writers do better? It's already gotten a non-zero amount of attention, with company representatives openly acknowledging the issue – though there's still a ways to go, judging by the content in question still being present in Persona 5 Royal‘s Western release earlier this year. It's worked with other companies, and in other industries, such as how Jynx was almost immediately redesigned and swept under the rug as soon as people started having the obvious reaction. Even the immovable object that is Disney has taken some of their own content off the menu, and similar giant Warner Brothers has labeled some of their own back catalog as insensitive to outright discriminatory.
But it starts with acknowledgement. That yes, this character or that bit of dialogue really screwed the pooch. And it's there, and we know about it, and that it's been labeled as something that an empathetic person wouldn't perpetuate. Maybe we've fixed it. Maybe we've put a warning label on it. Preferably even made a meal of when the story continues, to explore how and why that went wrong, and to give some actual teeth to that statement.
We call a spade a spade.
And Yosuke's a dirtbag of a friend.