One of my very earliest rants in this blog was a defense of Western RPGs, which I at the time assumed (wrongly) were almost all made by the US (Canada, Australia, and several European countries also figure strongly into the development pool of RPGs made outside of Japan). I had heard (and have continued to hear) many RPG players speak poorly of Western RPGs in comparison to Japanese RPGs, even though I had played many very good RPGs made by Western companies. I've played many since that were as good or better, too.
But the needless negative attitude can go both ways, and I've certainly seen a lot of people being unfairly critical of Japanese RPGs (often called JRPGs). So today I'm batting for the other team.*
The major problem I see people having with JRPGs like Chrono Trigger or the Final Fantasy series is the typically linear style of plot development and the concrete character personalities. This goes way back to the beginning foundations of video game RPGs. See, the genre is called "Role Playing Games" because it started out as simplistic video games that mimicked the playing style of table-top RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. Table-top RPGs' fundamental vehicle for developing their adventures and characters is the player's imagination--adventures, towns, dungeons, and so on are planned out and put forth by one player who has been agreed will run the game, and the physical traits, actions, speech, and mentality of the main characters are determined by each player. Basically, your character does what you want him/her/it to do, within the game's small limitations.
Early Western RPGs tried to emulate this, making games giving the player as much freedom as could be given. The simplistic plots weren't terribly linear in general, the player could determine their character's traits and determine what the character said and how they reacted to some situations, and the characters' abilities and effectiveness were determined using numerical stats and levels. As time has gone on, Western RPGs have kept trying to keep most of this true. While more constrained than they once were, RPGs like Mass Effect 1 and Fallout 3 allow you to determine what your character looks like, what they can do, and how their skills grow as they go about their adventures. Many Western RPGs like Risen and Dragon Age 1 are still mostly non-linear and open-ended...certain plot events have to happen before others, but just as often the player is given an opportunity to choose what parts of the plot to do when, and how far they want to go exploring. Though more restricted than they once were, RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Planescape: Torment have protagonists whose personalities and character traits are malleable, determined by what the player decides they will say and do. It's not always perfect--the protagonist of Risen, for example, is kind of the same guy regardless of what actions he takes--but a Western RPG will usually live up to the idea of a Role Playing Game--you're controlling a character the way you want to; you're playing their role. You and he are more or less joined as one.**
JRPGs...well, they just don't really do this, as a rule. Back in the 80s, Japanese game companies seem to have looked at the Western RPGs of the time, and hastily come to the conclusion that RPGs had a single defining characteristic: numerical stat-based characters and enemies. I'll grant you that the earlier JRPGs were often not as restricting as they could have been--Final Fantasy 1's main characters didn't really have any character development, and The Legend of Zelda 1 put a strong emphasis on exploration, allowing some non-linear freedom in what you could do when.
But as JRPGs grew and developed, worldly freedom more or less got wiped out--and a silent protagonist really isn't the same as a protagonist you mold to your preference, anyway. By the early days of the SNES, JRPGs were very linear, with plot events that had a very specific order, limited world exploration, and often clearly-defined protagonists. And that's pretty much how they've stayed to the present day. A typical JRPG's plot points take place in a clearly defined sequence of events, and contain a protagonist (or protagonists) whose actions and dialogue are more or less set in stone--the player doesn't get to choose what to do, only ensure that it's done. There are some exceptions--the Shin Megami Tensei games, for example, usually allow you to determine what in-game faction and/or philosophy the main character will support through some dialogue choices as the game's events transpire--but generally, JRPGs are too concrete in their creative aspects to be considered true Role Playing Games.
This is, incidentally, why I find people's complaints about Final Fantasy 13's being too linear somewhat amusing--they seem to think that the other games weren't, when they almost all (FF Crystal Chronicles perhaps being excepted) have been mostly linear. In a comparison of its linear increase to its peers, it's only a little bigger.***
So yes, I can admit that Japanese RPGs perhaps should not really be called RPGs. Literally speaking, "Role Playing Game" really doesn't apply any more to most JRPGs than it does to, say, a Metal Gear Solid game, or a Mario title. Hell, you could make a case that most Racing games are closer to "real" RPGs than a lot of JRPGs (a friend of mine once did so, fairly convincingly). By this point, it's way too late to come up with a new term for the genre, though, and JRPGs already have such a vague set of defining criteria that trying to rename their game type would be an utter mess.**** So, RPGs they are, even if RPGs they aren't.
The thing about all this is, though, that just because they don't necessarily live up to the original spirit of Role Playing Games, that's not a BAD thing. Rigid story progression in JRPGs can give a plot clear enough progression to benefit it; there are plenty of great stories out there that really could not be told without a specific sequence. Grandia 2, for example, is very clearly laid-out from start to finish in what order its plot's events go in, and it couldn't be effectively told otherwise, and it's one of the greatest RPG plots out there. A pre-made, unalterable protagonist whose actions and dialogue are defined by him/herself rather than by the player can be a VERY strong virtue to a game, which most Western RPGs aren't going to have. Virginia from Wild Arms 3, for example, is a marvelous main character, a fresh, creative personality with depth, realism, and great appeal. She could never work as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventurer protagonist, because almost the entirety of what makes her so great is the specific ways that she reacts to, interacts with, and progresses through the plot and its various characters. Western RPGs' freedom can still get you fantastic plots, of course--the Fallout and Knights of the Old Republic series have great ones, I love Mass Effect's sci-fi story, and Planescape: Torment's plot is one of the greatest ever conceived in a video game--but many, in fact most, of the best stories I've seen in RPGs are ones that play themselves out without significant influence from the player. Suikoden 2, Chrono Trigger, Grandia 2, several Final Fantasies, Disgaea 1, Mother 3, Terranigma, Makai Kingdom, the large majority of Shin Megami Tensei games, and so many more JRPGs have wonderful stories to tell that I wouldn't ever trade just for the opportunity to have greater direction in them.
You can say that JRPGs aren't "true" RPGs. And I more or less agree. But they have so much intellectual greatness to offer in their constrained capacity that there's no shame in that.
* Sounds gayer than it is.
** Also sounds gayer than it is.
*** Yes, this sounds gayer than it is, too.
**** This doesn't actually sound gay...but it is.