Nintendo's Secret History in Kyoto

Nintendo is a global phenomenon. I challenge you to find a someone under 50 that doesn't recognize Mario, Donkey Kong, or Pokemon. When Nintendo entered the western video game market in the early 1980s, it was a risky move that ended up paying off big. By 1990, 30% of American households owned a Nintendo Entertainment System. That's an incredible figure and a testament to Nintendo's modern appeal, but the history of the company goes back far beyond video games. For fans of games and history alike, a visit to Kyoto is a great chance to catch a glimpse of the humble origins of Nintendo.

Back in the days before Game Boys and Wiis, Nintendo was making playing cards. They established their headquarters in eastern Kyoto in 1889, near the banks of the Kamo River. Nintendo's founder, Fusajiro Yamauchi, was seeking to capitalize on the rising popularity of card games, long since looked down upon during the Edo Period for their connection to gambling. In the late 1800s, as the Meiji Emperor sought to Westernize Japan, European trends become popular and old restrictions on gambling were loosened. Yamauchi knew an opportunity when he saw it.

The original Nintendo cards were called hanafuda, flower cards. With a strict attention to detail, all of the cards were hand painted on mulberry wood pulp. The hanafuda decks were comprised of 12 suits of flower prints, each representing nature in a month of the calendar. The game of hanafuda itself is a progressive matching game similar to Go Fish or Crazy Eights, with certain cards featuring a bird or special image that would be worth extra points. Looking at the rules , it doesn't seem that complex (or fun) to a modern eye, but I suppose in the olden days it was considered a uniquely charming way to pass time. Ya know, in the days before Mario.

Yamauchi was an intersting guy. Before cards, his last name was Fukui and he was involved with providing cement for the Lake Biwa Canal project began in 1885. This tunnel under the mountains connected Japan's largest lake to Kyoto, and provided drinking water and an industrial boost that the city desperately needed after it lost its capital status to Tokyo in 1868. Fukui's business sense proved so adept that his boss adopted him and brought him into the family concrete business. He became Yamauchi and used his new access to the family fortune to try his hand at making playing cards. He ran both companies in tandem for years, and the Kyoto concrete business is still run by a fifth generation Yamauchi today!

In 2017, the city of Kyoto shared an old photo it discovered in its archives: the original Nintendo headquarters on Shomen Dori Street. I'm not sure if we know the exact date this picture, but it's probably turn of the century. You can see the gleaming white sign of Nintendo Playing Card Co. on the right, and an older faded wood sign labeled "karuta" in Japanese letters on the left. Karuta was another traditional Japanese card game that was made by Nintendo at this time.

Nintendo soon expanded its repertoire to include other cards games and the black and red western-style playing cards that we all recognize. There's been some debate over the exact date that Nintendo first started printing western playing cards. Legend has it that they began manufacturing these cards to entertain - and make docile - the Russian prisoners of war during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, but Nintendo playing cards were recently discovered in a US museum with a date of 1903. We may never known exactly when this transition to western cards took place.

Regardless, the popularity of cards in Japan exploded as the fervor for western fads and trends snowballed in the newly internationalized Japan at the turn of the century. But how did Nintendo ensure that the popularity of their cards would continue to grow? Here's the key to Nintendo's success the English language sources on Nintendo's history seem to conveniently leave out: tobacco. Yamauchi partnered with Yoshihiro "Tobacco King" Murai to ignite his card brand. Each pack of cigarettes contained a single card from the hanafuda deck. Fans were collecting tobacco wrappers long before they were collecting Pokemon.

By 1933, Nintendo needed a larger space to manufacture and distribute its playing cards, so the old wooden building on Shomen Dori was replaced by a modern concrete structure. You can still see this old headquarter today, in a quiet neighborhood only a 10 minute walk from Kyoto Station. I pass by here often, and the building is always closed up with windows covered and doors locked tight.

There are two small plaques on the front of the building with the company name. If you look carefully, you'll also see the word "Napoleon." The French general was the face of Nintendo for many years, and was featured on their "Presidental" line of cards. I guess no one told them that he was an emperor, not a president. Perhaps they didn't want him to have to compete in popularity with the Japanese Emperor? If you look at the picture above of all the card cases, you can see Napoleon featured on boxes, as well as some famous Japanese figures and even the red-skinned mythical tengu.

When I made my way through the area yesterday, I noticed that the windows had all been thrown open and the interior was slightly visible. Perhaps it was time for spring cleaning, or just an airing-out of the old structure on a warm, breezy day? I was able to get a tantalizing look at a bit of architectural detail in the rooms on the upper floors. The ceiling moulding and light fixtures are based in Taisho Era architecture, but lean towards a muted art deco style that seems hesitant to commit to full 1930s splendor (so typically Japanese!). This all hints at the architectural treasures locked away inside. So sad that what is probably one of the best preserved buildings from this period in Kyoto remains out of public view.

Luckily, the curtains on the front door had been removed and it was possible to see the inner vestibule. I wonder if they decided to make this visible to prevent tourists from trying more unwelcome means of getting a view of the interior? Everything is still in like-new condition, with the marble walls polished, not a single floor tile missing, and a freshly painted cream colored ceiling. Note the glass bricks on the floor, indicating the existence of a basement lit by natural light from above. Wonder what they keep down there now? Just out of view is a glass case housing a display of original hanafuda and karuta cards.

Just. Out. Of. View. Incredibly frustrating.

Oh, and guess who provided the concrete for this structure? That's right, the original Yamauchi concrete company!

It was in the 1933 building that Nintendo became the powerhouse of entertainment that we know it as today. In the 1950s, Yamauchi's grandson obtained the rights to put Disney characters on the company's playing cards, which was essentially a license to print money. Thanks to the magic of Disney, playing cards were no longer seen as a gambler's accessory and they became family entertainment. It was this huge success that pushed Nintendo to try its luck in new markets like taxis, hotels, toys, and even drum machines and copiers. They had their hits and their flops, but it wasn't until the late 1970s that they struck gold with the electronic gadgets that became the video games that many of us grew up with a decade later.

Until 2004, the small wooden building that once displayed the old "karuta" sign was still intact. Sadly, it's been torn down to make way for a void of pavement that I hesitate to even call a parking lot. This happens way too often in Kyoto.

The old 1933 headquarters is longer used for anything. Staff was cleaning the day I visited, but it remains empty and silent on all other days. Nintendo has moved to the southern end of the city and maintains two huge white (despairingly drab) office blocks, as well a variety of (equally boring) smaller satellite buildings throughout the neighborhood. With the popularity of Nintendo and the influx of tourism both at an all-time high, it's a shame that the company is unwilling to capitalize on their history. The old Shomen Dori headquarters is a treasure that should be shared with fans of both video games and architecture alike. This would be an amazing spot for a musuem. With proper coordination from the local tourism office, this spot could easily become of Kyoto's most popular locations. (And can you imagine the killing that Nintendo would make off ticket sales and merchandise here? Not that they need the money, I suppose...)

For the record, I'm not a huge Nintendo fan. I grew up with an SNES, but never stuck with the brand. Still, the surprising origin story of the company is a fun piece of trivia that I enjoy sharing with fans.

If you'd like to visit the old Nintendo headquarters, it's a short walk northeast of Kyoto Station. The building is on the north side of Shomen Dori between the Kamo River and Shosei-en Garden. You can find it easily on google maps by searching "Old Nintendo Building." For diehard Nintendo fans, this can be a fun pilgrimage to the spot where it all started over a hundred years ago. Fans have left some Mario stickers on a stopsign pole on the corner in acknowledgement of the history here and to mark the spot, but please don't damage the site with further decoration or graffiti.