How the Yakuza Gave Rise to Nintendo

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. A true statement if I’ve ever heard one. But I’d argued that the opposite is true too. The road to heaven is sometimes paved with bad. This is the story about how a Catholic saint gave us the yakuza.

And how in turn the yakuza gave us Nintendo. I don’t think anybody really knows what they’re doing deep down. They come up with an idea.

They follow it through to the end and they hope that it works out the same way that they’d planned from the start. But that’s not really how life works. We’re all just sort of bouncing off each other. If you ask a mouse about their best laid plans, I bet they’d squeak that the world is chaotic. But you still have to try. Our story starts in 1534, in a crypt in Paris.

Seven young noblemen were famously dedicating their lives to converting the heathens. And as Portugal and Spain and a number of other colonial powers had started to find new countries all across the world, there were more heathens than ever before. These seven had their work cut out for them, and that day they started something called the society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Luckily for them, the Portuguese king was looking to send a couple of missionaries to his colonies. They’d devolved a bit into sinfulness, which you can kind of understand because their economy was predominantly built on slaves. You rarely hear the word slaver and pious in the same sentence.

And on top of that, sailing was an incredibly dangerous activity so the people who joined these crews, they were often outcasts, prisoners and really rough guys. Not exactly church folk. But the king was a man of paradoxes, so he sent missionaries to these new colonies that the slavers had set up. So they didn’t do anything anti-Christian, I suppose. The first missionary that the Jesuits sent was a guy named Francis Xavier, who was undeniably pious. As far as I can tell, he was a really good guy.

He didn’t just preach to the rich behind their fort’s walls but he actually went out among the poor and the diseased. In the truest sense of the term, he practiced what he preached. As the Portuguese pushed further into Asia, Xavier joined them. In Malacca, he met and converted the first Japanese Christian, a murderer on the run named Anjirō. And in talking to Anjirō, he realized there was this new nation, Japan, that had never even heard of Christianity.

Which to Xavier, that was really, like, what his life was about. So he decided I’m gonna get some sailors together, I’m gonna get Anjirō to translate, and I’m heading to Japan to go convert the Japanese to Christianity. And what I think is funny is that this Christian saint actually spent his first few years spreading Buddhism.

He didn’t realize that when he was saying God, people were imagining he meant Buddha, after all he came from India. So he had a lot of trouble spreading Christianity. He went to go see the Emperor and the Shogun and he found them completely unwilling to change, so he sort of gave up on Japan and left off to China. Xavier failed to convert the country and Christianity really never took hold in Japan. Some subsequent missionaries would have a bit more success but eventually the government would crack down on it.

Drive it underground. But one thing that did take hold, came almost accidentally. Certainly not through Xavier’s means. Because the sailors who came along with him, they weren’t saints. And they brought with them something from home. Gambling.

A Spanish card game called Ombre had taken Europe by storm. And for a sailor spending months on a boat at a time just looking out to sea, it was a great way to pass the time. It was simple, it took up no space, transcended language and best of all, oh my God, you could gamble. And when you get to a harbour, you know there’s only so much money on the boat that can be passed back and forth, so you kind of want to gamble with the locals, to gamble online at the online casino South Africa website. And not only that but, if they don’t know the rules of the game, it’s a lot easier to gamble with them.

Soon Ombre starts to take off in Japan. It’s simple, it’s easy, and you can do it virtually wherever you are. Common people love it.

Some love it because it’s simple. Some people love it because it’s new. But some, they love it because it’s gambling. And personally I’m not all that into gambling. To me it kind of seems like a tax on people who can’t do math.

But it’s hard to deny that it’s popular. And just like most popular things, the government hated it. They felt that this thing that changed the distribution of wealth, well that could upend the social order. Remember our Burakumin video from earlier?

No? Well, then go watch it. It’s earlier in the playlist.

Come on. I’ll pause here. One Eternity Later Welcome back, and thanks for the like by the way.

That was really nice of you. So Japan has this oppressed group of people who sort of been kept down and basically put at the bottom of society for so many years. They’re treated even as criminals.

So when gambling enters society, it’s almost like a gift to them. If you’ve got a good social standing and a decent job, you’re probably not gonna risk everything to set up an illegal gambling parlor. But if you have nothing to lose, why not? People want it and they’re willing to pay a lot of money. And on top of that, they’re willing to overlook your social status. With these gambling parlors flourishing, there’s a lot of money on the table and gangs begin to form.

They call themselves the yakuza, which is not coincidentally also the words to describe a losing hand of cards. But the government doesn’t like this for so many reasons. They don’t like the gangs. They don’t like the foreign influence.

They don’t like the social upheaval and perhaps most of all, they don’t like the money flooding to the bottom. So they put a stop to hombre, and they ban all those types of cards that can play that game and invent a new type of cards that can’t be used for that form of gambling. But of course the yakuza just invent a new game that uses this new type of cards, so the government stamps that out too.

They invent a new type of game with a new type of cards and so on and so on for a few hundred years. Until eventually they come up with the type of cards called hanafuda or flower cards. Their intent is to make this for the common people, not gamblers. It’s really hard to gamble with these cards.

But the problem is that, by this stage, because there’s been so much oppression of card games, that the only people who actually want to play are gamblers. So of course it becomes associated with the yakuza. And no legitimate company really wants to start making these cards. That is until the 1880’s, with a company called Nintendo. It wasn’t specifically that Nintendo was looking to sell to the yakuza, but who else was going to buy the cards? They ended up with a symbiosis that would last for years.

It was over 80 years before Nintendo made anything that we would consider similar to what Nintendo is known for today. But now Nintendo has become one of the most family-friendly, positive game companies in the world. Even my wife likes the Wii. And I realize you don’t know her, but that’s like a Swiss person liking anarchy. The road to the yakuza was paved with saintly intentions, but it was bad intentions that got us the Ocarina of Time. Without the yakuza’s wealth, Nintendo would never be what it is today.