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Without Nintendo the story of computer entertainment might have begun and ended with Nolan Bushnell and Atari - yet most users know very little about the company, the machine or the men behind it all.
A playing card company
Nintendo was founded in 1889 by Fusajiro Yamauchi (1859-1940) to make the Japanese playing cards known as hanafuda.
A set of hanafuda cards from Nintendo
The kanji characters that make up the name Nintendo can also be read as "leave luck to heaven". The company made the cards of traditional materials and traditional methods adapted to mass production. In 1907 the company moved into western playing cards and needed to secure a wider sales outlet than its own shops.
A marketing deal with Japan Tobacco left Nintendo the major playing card manufacturer in Japan. Fusajiro had no sons so, by Japanese tradition, the succession fell to his one of his daughters, Tei Yamauchi. She married Sekiryo Kaneda in 1929 and her husband who took the family name as part of the deal. By 1947 he had expanded the business to include American games such as poker and pinochle and built a sales force to match. Once again no male children were born to be heirs to the Nintendo empire and Tei and Sekiryo's daughter Kimi married Shikanojo Inaba who also took the Yamauchi name and became the heir apparent.
Unfortunately things didn't go as planned. After giving birth to Hiroshi, the first son to the Yamauchi house in three generations, Shikanojo left. The young boy was left in the care of his grandparents and grew up resenting his father and distant from his mother. When his father was ill Hiroshi refused to see him. Only after his death did he realise the importance of his father. He grieved for months and became a changed man.
Hiroshi takes charge
Hiroshi Yamauchi, born 1927
After the second world war Hiroshi enrolled at Waseda University to study law. He also agreed to a marriage arranged by his grandfather. When Hiroshi was 21 Sekiryo had a stroke and Hiroshi was summoned to his bedside. His grandfather told him that he had to leave university and take control of the company. He agreed but on condition that he was the only family member in the company and Sekiryo agreed. The old man died soon after never knowing if Hiroshi was up to the job that he had left him.
Hiroshi sacked all of the managers that had served Nintendo through its earlier years. He wanted none of the old guard to interfere with his command. He wasn't welcomed because of his youth and inexperience. In 1951 he changed the name of the company to Nintendo Playing Card company. He tried to modernise and started to produce plastic coated playing cards. In 1959 he agreed to a licensing deal with Disney to produce cards with cartoon characters. They were advertised on TV and Hiroshi built a new network of distributors.
Nintendo's sales increased and, more importantly for the future they had a foothold in the Japanese toy market. The next step in his plan to modernise the company was a listing on the stock market to generate the cash needed. Soon after there followed a range of oddball projects - instant rice, a "love hotel" where rooms could be rented by the hour, and a taxi service. Eventually Hiroshi realised that Nintendo's advantage was that it was established in the toy and entertainment market and he decided that it would be better to concentrate on this.