Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Nintendo Photo: When It All Began

The following is the bare-bones background for an installment column I will be launching on the website of a thinktank in April.

Omake Books website, at, has a photo of the original home office of the playing card manufacturer that became the gaming giant Nintendo, taken, it is widely believed, around its establishment in 1889, when it began manufacturing traditional Japanese playing cards, the 花札(hanafuda) and most likely other forms of the かるた(caruta), derived from the Portuguese word carta. I argue that it is more likely to have been taken around 1902, when the firm began manufacturing paying cards.


1) Five signboards, from left to right.

A) Upper left: The hiragana , obviously the last character in かるた, and other indiscernible writing are visible.

B) Lower left: A small signboard depicting the Nintendo playing card hallmark –Napoleon Buonaparte.

C) Middle left: A weather-beaten, traditional signboard with illegible inscription in small letters (vertical) and かるた(caruta) in large letters (horizontal, from right to left).

D) Middle right: A small, triangular, weather-beaten signboard with the Marufuku ( in a circle) logo, かるた製造元 (playing card manufacturer; vertical), and 任天堂 (right to left) on it.

E) Right: An outsized, white signboard with MARUFUKU NINTENDO CARD CO. (left to right) and?印欧米輸出向 (for exports to ?, India(?), Europe and America; right to left) on top; Marufuku ( in a circle) logo, かるた製造元 (playing card manufacturer; right to left), and Marufuku ( in a circle) logo; and 山内任天堂 (Yamauchi Nintendo; right to left).

2. The Bicycle

The bicycle is an old make, with what appears to be a primitive stand.

3. The Building

A traditional Kyoto building to which Western-style cast-iron grilling has apparently been added.

1E) is the giveaway. Nintendo started manufacturing the four-suit playing cards in 1902; an early example from 1903 survives in the United States. It is unthinkable that the English name and the announcement of its overseas business could have long, if at all, predated this turn of events. 1)E) and likely A) and B) must have been added to the visibly older, traditional B) and C), more appropriate for the initial domestic hanafuda business.

The stand is not conclusive. I thought it was a kickstand, a feature that early bicycles did not have. However, I realized on second thought that it could be an independent stand, which surely must have been available from the very early days of the bicycle. The building is even more inconclusive. Mr. Yamauchi purchased an existing house and adapted it to his purpose.

Could the photo be of a much later provenance? Possibly, but it is likely to have been taken at some milestone moment. The street has been cleared, the camera (and the bicycle) has been carefully positioned; a quiet pride permeates the scene. Launching its export operations would have been the perfect moment to take a photo to include in its sales brochure, or whatever Nintendo printed up to project its corporate image and pitch its products.