Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Nintendō no Meiji monogatari

Up to recently, the most antiquated piece of Nintendo technology in our home was the original Nintendo Entertainment System Deluxe Set that I've owned since 1986, with a more or less intact R.O.B. After that might be either my original Game Boy with its pea-green screen or a collection of Nintendo Power magazine going back to issue 6 (back when video games journalism was helpful things like maps and tips).

I'm currently working on miniaturizing my collection.
My original NES and R.O.B. meets the NES Classic Edition and R.O.B. amiibo.

Not that long ago, I added to my collection of Nintendo ephemera with the purchase of a lovely deck of Super Mario Bros. hanafuda cards. Though clearly of recent vintage - chock-a-block with references to Luigi's Mansion, Yoshi's Island, Super Mario 3D World, Super Mario Galaxy, and the Donkey Kong games as well as all the beloved characters - this edition of the classic Japanese card game hearkens back to the origins of the company in the misty but exciting days of the Meiji Era.

From 1633 onwards, the Tokugawa shoguns who ruled Japan enacted a policy of Sakoku designed to seclude the island nation from what they perceived to be detrimental foreign influence. Outside trade was restricted to a handful of "compatible" nations in a limited number of ports, namely the Dutch and Chinese at Nagasaki. Trade was also conducted with Korea, the then-independent island nation of Ryukyu (now part of Japan), and the Ainu, the indigenous peoples of Hokkaido. Any foreigner who set foot on Japanese soil would be killed, as would any Japanese smuggler who left the country and was foolish enough to come back. Christianity was explicitly outlawed and punishable by death, forcing Japanese people who had converted to Christianity to go into hiding. Even intercession by family members on behalf of a party guilty of breaking the Sakoku laws was punishable by death.

One of the offending items banned by the Tokugawas were playing cards. These had been introduced by the Spanish missionary Saint Francis Xavier in 1549 and enjoyed great popularity throughout Japan. Their usefulness for gambling was particularly admired, thus bringing them twice under fire by the shogun. Private gambling was banned, as were such foreign articles. Cards in and of themselves were not banned, however, and new homegrown varieties developed. As each new style grew in popularity and utility, the hammer of the shogun came down upon it. The hanafuda deck survived because of its emphasis on image recognition rather than overt points and the diversity of games that could be played with it.

A standard hanafuda deck consists of 48 cards divided into 12 suits reflecting the 12 months. Each suit features a different type of plant growing in that month. January is pine, February is plum, March is cherry blossom, April is wisteria, May is iris, June is peony, July is clover, August is pampas grass, September is chrysanthemum, October is maple, November is willow, and December is paulownia. Each card is also assigned a point value: "bright" cards are worth 20 points, "animal" cards are worth 10, "ribbon" cards are worth 5, and "plain" cards are worth 1. The name "hanafuda" translates to "flower card." The Nanbanjin Nikki has a helpful article on the cultural significance of each plant.

A standard hanafuda deck, numbered by month, with point values underneath each card.
A number of different games can be played with hanafuda cards. A common one is "matching flowers," a relatively simple game of matching up suits. Eight cards are placed face up on the table, and each player receives eight cards in their hand. Players then take turns discarding a card from their hand. If the card matches the suit of a card on the table, the player "captures" them both. If not, the card is itself placed face up on the table. Either way, the player then takes a card from the pile. If it also matches the suit of another card, they are both captured as well. If not, it is placed face up on the table. Twelve rounds are played, one for each month, and the winner is determined by total points. Extra points are awarded for specific combinations called "yakus". For example, a combination of the sake cup (September's "animal" card) with the moon (August's "bright" card) is a "moon viewing" combination worth an extra five points. A combination of the sake cup with cherry blossoms (March's "bright" card) is "cherry blossom viewing" and also worth five points. A more challenging variation is "koi koi" where only the points from combinations count. An online version of "koi koi" can be played here.

Vintage postcard of women playing hanafuda.
Many of the cultural institutions considered most distinctively Japanese - Ukiyo-e art, sumo, sushi, the tea ceremony, geisha, etc. - were created or refined during the Edo Period, the era of the Tokugawa shoguns. Hanafuda is another such example. The Edo Period itself came to an end when Japan's borders were forced open to unrestricted trade with the West in 1853, setting off a chain reaction leading to a violent and bloody civil war in 1868 and 69 between the forces loyal to the shogun and those loyal to Emperor Meiji. The Tokugawa regime collapsed, Emperor Meiji ascended to leadership of the country, the policy of Sakoku was repealed, and Japan modernized. Virtually nothing was left untouched by the modernizations, from the European-style constitution and parliamentary system of government to agricultural and education reforms to the abolition of the samurai class to the first Japanese films, anime, and manga (comics).

Hanafuda lingered on, but with limited popularity. The gambling market kept the hanafuda industry afloat, while at the same time giving it the social handicap of associations with organized crime. Things began to change on November 6th, 1889, when entrepreneur Fusajiro Yamauchi opened up a hanafuda card store in Kyoto. The name of his company was Nintendo Koppai. Popular legend says that the name "Nintendo" translates to "leave luck to heaven," whereas "Koppai" means "playing cards," but the actual kanji characters (Nintendo: 任天堂, Koppai: 骨牌) lend to a more prosaic translation: "the company that is allowed to make hanafuda," a commentary on the game's legal status.

Originally, Nintendo Playing Card Co. hanafuda decks were made by hand from mulberry bark. Profits were small, but picked up when the Yakuza came calling. Each new game of hanafuda for dollars required a fresh, unopened deck. Yamauchi couldn't keep up with the demand, and expanded his operations. The trademark brand of cards Nintendo produced were Daitoryo, or "President," emblazoned with an image of Napoleon.

A deck of Nintendo Daitoryo cards.

Case lot of said cards.
A modern deck of Nintendo Daitoryo cards sold in a plastic case.

"President" cards were the top of line, and still are today in Nintendo's small hanafuda side-business. Other brands of varying quality and imagery were (and continue to be) sold. The company diversified into other types of card games and reintroducing Western-style cards (called "trump") to Japan in 1902. Their own cards were in turn exported to the West as "Napoleon Playing Cards." Curiously, their Western-style cards still featured hanafuda images on their faces, providing the allure of the Orientalist for average consumers and two types of card decks for the price of one for those in the know.

A box of cards adorned with the tengu figure of Japanese mythology.
These are the second-highest quality cards produced by Nintendo.

Box of "Napoleon" brand Western style cards. 

A catalogue of Nintendo's diverse offerings.

In Japanese culture of the time, and to a certain extent today, businesses were passed on from father to son. Unfortunately for Fusajiro Yamauchi, he had none. Therefore, in typical Japanese fashion, a son-in-law was arranged who was adopted into the family and took on his father-in-law's name. Sekiryo Yamauchi took over his adoptive family business in 1929 and renamed it Yamauchi Nintendo & Co. in 1933. That same year, a stylish new stone office was built beside the original wooden edifice, and still stands today. Sadly, Fusajiro's wooden building was torn down years ago to facilitate the construction of a cement pad.

Video game enthusiasts have found getting an audience at Nintendo's corporate headquarters in Kyoto difficult. A fence and dutiful security guards at the checkpoint prevent any such nonsense. The 1933 office provides a more photogenic opportunity, though they are none more welcoming to tourists. Incidents with overzealous fans have forced the company to post signs warning against unlawful trespass with threats of prosecution, specifically mentioning tourists. No one outside the company knows what happens inside the old office, but the most prevalent speculation is corporate archives.  

Sekiryo was also without a son to take over Nintendo, and his adopted son ended up abandoning the family before the mantle could be passed on. Therefore it fell upon Sekiryo's grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi to pick it up in 1949. He once again changed the name, this time to Nintendo Playing Card Co., and was the first to produce plastic playing cards in Japan in 1953. The turnover in Nintendo's direction came in 1956, when Hiroshi visited the largest playing card producer in the United States. Expecting a grand and richly appointed factory, he instead found a small, cramped little office. This disillusioned him to the playing card industry and committed him to striking out in new directions.

Nintendo procured a licensing deal with Disney, and used the new infusion of cash to branch out into the toy industry (as well as instant rice, vacuum cleaners, a taxi service, and love hotels). Among their most popular items were electronic toys, which brought them into the field of video games. Nintendo's first video game system was Color TV-Game 6, a dedicated console playing a variation on Pong, in 1977. In 1980, the company released a series of simple LED handheld games called Game & Watch and a certain arcade game that grew to some prominence...

Then, in 1983, Nintendo produced the Family Computer, or Famicom, which was imported to the West in 1985 as the Nintendo Entertainment System. On the back of the NES, Nintendo developed a gaming empire. Yet it all began with a simple set of playing cards. 

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