Card Games and Sex Hotels: Nintendo’s Secret History

Card Games and Sex Hotels: Nintendo's Secret History

On this day in 1889, ninety-eight years before a pixellated plumber named Mario began his first epic quest to save the Princess Peach from the brutish Donkey Kong, a young Japanese businessman named Fusajiro Yamauchi founded the company now known as Nintendo to sell hand-painted hanafuda playing cards.

Hanafuda—and Japanese card games in general—have a bit of a curious history. There wasn’t much popular card-playing—or gambling—in Japan until the 1450s. That was when the Jesuit priest and future saint Francisco of Javier landed in Japan with a copy of the Gospel and—more importantly—a deck of Portuguese-style playing cards. In the next eighty years, gambling with Western cards became enormously popular—so popular, in fact, that when the military dictators of the Tokugawa Shogunate closed Japan off from the West in 1633, they banned gambling and Western cards as well.

The matter might have ended there, and the Japanese fascination with playing cards might have gone down in history as a brief fad. But the Tokugawas had underestimated the new Japanese love for betting on cards. When Western cards became illegal, enterprising Japanese gamblers started inventing their own card games. These would be popular—and legal—for a while, and then the Tokugawas would figure out that they were being used for gambling and ban them too.

By the time the government began to relax the gambling prohibition, the last game standing was Hanafuda, which fused Japanese art and playing styles with Western-style cards. Unlike Western cards, Hanafuda cards have no numbers: there are twelve suits—each named after a month—each containing four cards with similar pictures. To this day, Nintendo—which means “Leave luck to heaven,” reflecting the company’s early association with gambling—still sells playing cards in Japan.

In the 50s, Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi (Fusajiro’s grandson—every Nintendo CEO, with the exception of the most recent, has been somehow related to the founder) realized that the company was never going to be REALLY, REALLY BIG as long as they were just making playing cards. Using new capital from a franchising deal with Disney, he started expanding into a variety of bizarre new ventures—a cab company, an instant rice brand, even (and I am so totally not even remotely making this up) a chain of sex hotels, which Yamauchi himself was said to frequent sans wife. (In a nice nod to history, today some Japanese sex hotels have begun offering Nintendo Wii rental along with your hourly-charged room).

Had any of these succeeded, Nintendo might today be known primarily as an instant rice company—or, perhaps, a sketchy sex hotel company—and my generation would not have grown up playing Super Mario Brothers.

But as luck would have it, all of those ventures failed. Nintendo was near bankruptcy when Yamauchi decided to use the company’s relationship with toy retailers—cemented by sixty years of card sales—to break into the Japanese toy market. This wasn’t especially successful either—but it did lead to Nintendo’s experimentation in the 70s with new brands of electronic toys, including the ‘laser guns’ that would make games like “Duck Hunt” possible. This, in turn, led them into the video game market—and the rest, as they say, is Overlooked History.

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