If you haven’t noticed yet, over time and with the regular banning, the games became almost exclusively for gambling. The early Komatsufuda was used for many games gambling and non-gambling alike, but as the government got stricter and began banning more cards they became less appealing to honest, everyday people and more popular with gamblers and gangsters. So it’s no surprise that when Hanafuda was finally made it was also almost exclusively for gambling. It’s also interesting to note that Fusajiro Yamauchi started marketing them only 3 years after they were legalized opening shop in 1889 (he jumped on that quick!). But we’ll come back to that!
During the ban on cards and gambling, illegal gambling dens began cropping up in abandoned shrines and temples (堂). These operations became popular and appealed to Bakuto (gamblers).
As they increased in popularity, these operations expanded from simple gambling spots into full blown operations, developing loan sharks and having on site security. During this time there were two very popular gambling cards, Kabufuda (specifically the game Oichi Kabu, a game similar to Baccarat and black Jack) and Hanafuda. 花 “flower“ and 鼻 “nose” are both pronounced as Hana, so to signal at the door of some facilities inconspicuously that you were there too gamble, Bakuto would rub their noses. This also led to the association of the Tengu (the “ten” uses 天, I’ll explain all this soon promise!) imagery with playing cards, big nosed demons of Japanese lore.
These gambler’s havens created a new breed of gangster and gave birth to one of the most recognized names in crime history, the Yakuza. In Oicho-Kabu, the worst hand is an 8, a 9 and a 3 or, Ya-Ku-Za, also in Hanafuda the hands are called Yaku. This isn’t a coincidence, there were(are) two major types of Yakuza in Japanese history, those who peddled stolen goods and the Bakuto variety, that gambled, ran gambling halls, lent money and reclaimed debts. Kyoto is home to the 4th largest Yakuza group, the Aizukotetsu-kai, and it just so happens that the original Nintendo Card Company is right in the heart of a known Yakuza area. While their name may be from the worst hand in Oicho-Kabu, and police have dubbed them “violent groups” the Yakuza like to refer to themselves more favorably as “ninkyo dantai” or “chivalrous organization” those savvy in the Japanese writing system might recognize the “nin” in ninkyo 任 as the same “nin” in Nintendo, though Nintendo will deny it, I’ll go into that soon.
Okay, fast forward, Hanafuda is legalized in 1886, and in 1889 Fusajiro Yamauchi set up his tiny little shop next to a stone building that he’d eventually expand into, in Kyoto and the heart of the gambling scene. He started manufacturing and selling his own Hanafuda cards and with the recent legalization of Hanafuda and his location, he wasn’t short on customers. This operation eventually became “The Nintendo Playing Card Company” and would go on to be a major player in the playing card world, making more than just Hanafuda and eventually advancing into one of the most well-known names in the gaming world.
While the current company denies it to an extent, Nintendo’s birth from the world of gambling is hard to hide. At one point when card sales were down Nintendo began manufacturing their “lower quality” cards, these were cheap and easy to make and appealed to the cheaper Bokuto. These cards were differentiated from there high quality counter parts buy being marketed with a Tengu on their cases. This was a direct call out and advertisement to the local gamblers, and was an obvious nod to Nintendo’s major customers. An article on this very subject was published by Kotaku that referenced Pix n/ Love’s History of Nintendo (http://www.pixnlovepublishing.com/The-History-Of-Nintendo-Vol.1.html), in the book Gunpei Yokoi (inventor of the Gameboy) recalls one of his earliest jobs at Nintendo being maintenance of the Hanafuda machines. He then talks about how often gangsters would come in angry that they lost a game due to defective Hanafuda cards, so even though it was a job entrusted to a new worker, it was a very important one because of their type of clientele.
Now onto the actual name “Nintendo”, while the company has tried to separate itself from it’s shady past by claiming their name means “Leave Luck to the Heavens”, many think otherwise. Myself being one of these, I read many articles on the name and whether they have something to them or not, it’s interesting stuff. I’m not well versed in the Japanese language, but I do know that there seems to be significance to what Kanji is used. This has lead a lot of people to break down Nintendo’s name 任天堂 and find significance that way. Many Yakuza actually truly believe that the “Nin” 任 in Nintendo is from Ninkyo, as they both use that Kanji. This could be a shout out (and a more personal one at that) to the Yakuza who call themselves Ninkyo Dantai. There is further shout-out evidence some believe, with the “Ten” 天 being the same as in Tengu, which has long been a symbol of gamblers. The weak but possible finale is in the “Do” 堂 this was often added to businesses names (The temple of blank! Rug Sanctuary! Etc) which is the most likely thing here, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s another nod to the gamblers and the early gambling dens set up in old abandoned shrines and temples (堂). Probably not, but I like to think so.
While it seems rather obvious that Nintendo’s origins are steeped in underground gambling, the company has very much attempted to break away from this. They’ve sugar-coated their origins a tad and made it a bit more of a rags to riches story. Nintendo could honestly mean “Leave luck to the heavens” but it also seems entirely plausible that its entire name was a nod and a shout out to its notorious customer base that helped it become a gaming empire. Without these shady Bokuto, and the Yakuza we quite possibly wouldn’t have Nintendo. I believe in giving thanks when thanks are due, so Thanks?