Nintendo and the Yakuza

Yakuza in Asakusa, Tokyo. Courtesy of Magnum PhotosMarioRecently I've taken a bit of an interest in Yakuza culture and have found myself reading articles here and there with great interest. Today I discovered something that truly amazed me-- that the world's beloved Nintendo video game company has connections to Japan's organised crime syndicates!

In order to explain this rather obscure and fascinating connection, I must first explain the origin of the word, やくざ ("yakuza"). This word comes from a combination of three very old Japanese words from a regional dialect: 八つ ("Yattsu" / Eight) 九 ("Kabu" / Nine) and ざ ("Za" / slang word for 三 or "San" / Three). Yattsu-Kabu-Za ; 8-9-3. Take the abbreviated form of these three words and you get Ya-Ku-Za. Okay, so now that we've established that-- why "8-9-3?"

Kabufuda8-9-3 goes back to a very old Japanese card game called おいちょかぶ (Oicho-Kabu), which has some slight similarities to Blackjack. The game is not played with western-style playing cards, but with a Japanese 40-card deck called 株札 (Kabufuda). Oicho-Kabu was an integral part of Yakuza illegal gambling rings and became very popular for this reason. In Oicho-Kabu, 8-9-3 is the worst possible hand, and results in a score of Zero (yes, 20 = 0 in this game). Zero, being a losing hand is considered useless, and 8-9-3 or "Ya"-"Ku"-"Za," therefore, was used by regular folks to describe the "useless hands" of society. (Is that amazingly interesting or what!?)

Nintendo Company HQ PlacardNow that we've completed our history lesson, on to my main point-- Nintendo! What seems like it must be common knowledge to many folks was completely new and fascinating to me as I only found out about it this past weekend. When Nintendo was first founded in Kyoto back in 1889, owner 山内 房治郎 (Yamauchi Fusajiro)'s business was the production and sale of Kabufuda (and also 花札 (Hanafuda)) playing card decks! In fact, each deck of cards was hand-made by Yamauchi-san himself! When he could no longer keep up with the huge demand, he hired some employees to help him and that's how the company grew**. The obvious conclusion, therefore, is that a large percentage of Nintendo's first customers were Yakuza!

I would like to state, at this point, that I was not able to find any specific sources of information stating that Nintendo's first customers were, indeed, Yakuza. Based on the time period, and the two groups' respective line of work, however, it seems like a fairly obvious conclusion. Please feel free to leave a comment for me if you have any evidence or information that illustrates the opposite.

**Nintendo still makes Hanafuda (flower-card) decks. One of their modern versions has drawings of all the Mario characters on them.

27-May-2011: NEW UPDATE! Further exploration of this topic was recently posted by Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku.com in his review of the book, "The History of Nintendo."


Nekojiru / ねこぢる

Just recently I started reading a very unusual, interesting and sometimes even shocking and gives-me-the-creeps manga called ねこぢる (Nekojiru / "Cat Juice"). It's the first manga I've ever read in Japanese. I have to admit it's more difficult than I expected, although I have been enjoying the addition of lots of strange new words to my vocabulary. LOL!

橋口千代美 (Hashiguchi Chiyomi) (1967 - 1998) is the mangaka (manga artist/writer) who created this fine work, although she, herself, usually went by the name Nekojiru. The series ねこぢるうどん (Nekojiru Udon), which is now considered to be her finest work, first debuted in 1990. The main characters in Nekojiru are, as the title suggests, cats, primary focused on the cute little kitty brother and sister duo, Nyāko and Nyātta. Surprisingly, the lives of these cute cats are steeped in dark humour, paradoxical comedy, brutality, eeriness and just outright craziness. This probably sounds a bit strange and perhaps even off-putting to some of my readers, but I give you my assurance that this is what makes this manga so unbelievably appealing and fascinating! Quite possibly, some of the content in Nekojiru's stories was influenced by psychedelic drugs like psilocybin mushrooms which make appearances in her books from time to time. Admittedly, after reading one of the stories, I find myself feeling dazed and a little bit creeped out or even disturbed, but in spite of that, or perhaps *because of* it, I am eager for more! I think there is a lot to be said for manga that has the power to do THAT!

After an increase in popularity two anime adaptations of Nekojiru were created. ねこぢる劇場 (Nekojiru Gekijō / Nekojiru Theatre) aired in Japan on TV Asahi in 1999. Then, in 2001, the award-winning ねこぢる草 (Nekojiru Sou / "Nekojiru Grass") was released in both Japan and the U.S. (named "Cat Soup" in English). Sadly, Hashiguchi-san was unable to enjoy any of the fame surrounding her work since she had committed suicide by hanging herself on 10-May-1998, seemingly without any clear motivation, leaving no suicide note.

People who knew Nekojiru personally found her to be somewhat plain and misunderstood, but also unpredictable, mysterious and seemingly fragile if not for shadowy side of her internal personality which she expressed so powerfully in her manga. Whatever the truths of her persona may be, she was an amazing mangaka who left her unique and incomparable mark on the world for which many of us will be forever thankful.

Here are some links I'd like to include with my post:
  • Nekojiru homepage: http://nekojiru.net/
  • A wonderful up-close-and-personal English-translation of a memoir written by 吉永嘉明 (Yoshinaga Yoshiaki) in a book called 自殺されちゃった僕 (Jisatsu Sarechatta Boku) about his acquaintances with Nekojiru: Part 1, Part 2


Asahina Mikuru Goth-Punk

I am so happy to announce another new edition to the family-- another member of 涼宮ハルヒの (Suzumiya Haruhi's) S.O.S. Brigade! Charming and beloved time-traveler 朝比奈 みくる (Asahina Mikuru) has arrived wearing her goth punk outfit, making goth punk moe like no one ever has before. Of course, Mikuru-chan looks super cute regardless of what she wears!

She came from the future to investigate a huge time-rift that happened several years ago, that Suzumiya Haruhi created without realising it. I'm terribly curious about her experiences traveling through time, and also about her in-depth knowledge of science, but she always just tells me "きんそくじこうです" (it's classified). In any case, I'm happy she decided to stay in our time period for now.

Mikuru-chan was escorted here by the team of Griffon Enterprises and sculptor 山本雅弘 (Yamamoto Masahiro), the same duo who also invited Haruhi and Nagato Yuki to join us and dressed them up in their cute Goth/Lolita attire. We have seen quite a few beauties coming from Griffon these days and they seem to just keep on coming! Much like her friends Haruhi and Yuki, Mikuru-chan looks incredible and it's clear that considerable care and effort went into her outfit, accessories and hair; her overall appearance is absolutely jaw-dropping. I think I'm very luck that she's here!


Feature Foto #8: Kiyomizu-dera

Today's Feature Foto is the doorway into the main Pagoda at 清水寺 (Kiyomizu-dera / Kiyomizu Temple) in Kyoto. The original site of this gorgeous Buddhist temple was first founded in 778 A.D. by a Buddhist priest from the Kita Hōso sect named Enchin. Due to fires that damaged the temple several times over the years, the building seen in this photo is from 1633.

The temple was named "Kiyomizu," or "clear water" after the nearby 音羽瀑布 (Otowa no Taki / Otowa's waterfall) originating from the hills that surround the temple. The fresh, clean water from the waterfall is one of the main attractions at the temple which contributes to the health and longevity of those who drink it. A visit to the temple wouldn't be complete without drinking a cupful of the Otowa no Taki water which is partially channeled into three streams that fall from overhead into a decorative pond. Visitors cross a small bridge over the pond and fill their cups with the therapeutic water as it falls from above.

The Hondo (main temple building) was built in devotion to Kannon in which a statue of the God is displayed. The Hondo houses one of the temple's most spectacular vantage points, with beautiful views of Kyoto-- the Kiyomizu-dera Stage, which also happens to be one of its most famous historic curiosities. The fame of the Kiyomizu-dera Stage comes from an Edo-period tradition of taking the 13-meter jump from the stage down onto the hillside below, the survival of which was believed to be rewarded with the granting of the jumper's wish. Only 85% of those who attempted it survived.

With all of the world-famous and stunningly beautiful sites to see in Kyoto, I think that the Kiyomizu-dera is sometimes omitted from travelers' lists of must-see places. I would strongly recommend that this wonderful temple NOT be skipped, however, as it's sure to leave a lasting impression on all who visit. I would especially recommend a visit in the autumn, when the Japanese maple trees that surround the site are in full, glorious colour. Please enjoy Kyoto-- one of the places I cherish most in this world.

If you have Google Earth, download Kiyomizu-dera's place marker.