Hiroshi Yamauchi is best known for his efforts as the President of Nintendo prior to the current Satoru Iwata. As a businessman, Yamauchi also owned the Seattle Mariners Major League Baseball Team and was once ranked among the top 500 richest people in the world (#13 in Japan). He has an estimated net worth of approximately $2.5 billion USD.
I am writing this post to pay my respects to the late Yamauchi, who had passed away earlier today. This individual is often said to be the driving force that has shaped Nintendo into what it is now. Here’s a brief history lesson of the legend and his incredible journey resulting in the transformation of Nintendo from a small playing card manufacturer into a common household name.
The Japanese powerhouse left his academic studies at Waseda University in 1949 at the request of his grandfather (the president of Nintendo at the time), who had suffered a stroke and lacked an immediate successor. Yamauchi accepted his grandfather’s wishes to become the president of Nintendo with a single condition, that he would be the only family member allowed to work at the company. His grandfather agreed to this condition and passed away shortly afterwards.
Upon joining Nintendo, Yamauchi met the company with an iron fist. Many factory employees at the time did not respect him due to his lack of experience and young age. As a result, they organized a strike, expecting him to cave easily and give in to their conditions. Unexpectedly, Yamauchi responded by firing long-time employees who had questioned his authority. He then changed the company’s name to Nintendo Company Limited and established a new headquarters in Kyoto. He also imposed himself as the sole judge of new products, allowing nothing to enter the market unless he had personally given it the green light.
Wow, talk about a business tyrant! Doesn’t seem like too great of a guy does he?
Though I wouldn’t wish to work with him, I must admit that Yamauchi had some incredible foresight, intuition, and above all, persistence.
Nintendo at the time of Yamauchi’s induction was a company that produced and marketed a unique, Japanese-style playing card game dubbed Hanafuda. The hand-made cards were Nintendo’s sole focus since 1889, the year that the company was founded. The demand for the studio’s Hanafuda cards were relatively high, but the business plan was quite limited in scope. Yamauchi later made plans to visit the United States Playing Card Company, which the world’s biggest playing card manufacturer at the time. To his dismay, the office and factory turned out to be much smaller than he had imagined. It was at that moment when he realized that the card manufacturing business alone would not be enough to bring Nintendo the success he desired.
Upon returning, Yamauchi took measures in attempts to diversify the company. He ventured into various business investments including a taxi company, love hotel, and individually portioned instant rice. Each of these experiments failed and Nintendo nearly went bankrupt until Yamauchi came across a factory engineer playing with a simple hand-made extendable claw. Yamauchi saw potential in the design and decided to turn the claw into a fully-fledged product, which later landed in the markets as the Ultra Hand.
The Ultra Hand was instantly recognized and adopted by Japanese children everywhere, and thus shifted Nintendo’s focus into the toy market. The same engineer that invented the Ultra Hand was then solely assigned to the development of new products; some of his later inventions served to solidify Nintendo’s position as an established toy manufacturer.
Technological breakthroughs ushered in a new era of entertainment, and Yamauchi was already one step behind. Companies like Atari and Magnavox had begun distributing gaming consoles that could be used in conjunction with televisions. The president attempted to participate in the video game market through various methods such as launching Nintendo’s own game console and obtaining the license to sell the Magnavox systems, but none of these plans were spectacular or effective. Japanese games were also later produced by the studio, but Nintendo’s efforts remained irrelevant until Shigeru Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong title became a smash hit in 1981.
Yamauchi’s toy and game development process consisted of three different research and development teams that would compete with one another internally, their main goal was to be as innovative as possible; the competition supposedly bolstered creativity and diligence. Have you ever noticed all of the strange and unique devices, peripherals, and game mechanics that Nintendo has been coming up with for decades? This is probably a result from the development process.
Yamauchi participated with introducing Nintendo’s new gaming consoles to the world and acted as a filter that ultimately decided which titles were to be launched. The president overlooked pitches and ideas from the three core development teams, and many more games were officially released.
Yamauchi played an important role in releasing and announcing the NES, SNES, N64, and Gamecube consoles. He stepped down in 2002 and was succeeded by Satoru Iwata. Yamauchi refused to accept his retirement pension (approximately $9-14 million yen) and left it with the company because he felt that Nintendo could put the money to better use. He had also donated billions (an undocumented amount, but supposedly over 5 billion yen) to build a new cancer treatment center in Kyoto.
The legend lived on until this fateful day where Yamauchi’s life was put to rest by complications of Pneumonia. He passed away at the age of 85 with five surviving children.
On behalf of GamingGrad.com, I would like to thank Hiroshi Yamauchi for all of his contributions and efforts to advance the industry.
Thank you for your efforts in putting a bit of Nintendo into everyone’s lives, may you rest in peace.