Stephen O’Malley

RIP Hiroshi Yamauchi (1927-2013)

Posted: Sep 20, 2013

RIP Hiroshi Yamauchi (1927-2013)

Hiroshi Yamauchi, former president of Nintendo, died in Japan this morning. Yamauchi, who succeeded his grandfather, Sekiryo Kaneda (Yamauchi), was the last of the Yamauchi family to helm the gaming giant. He was 85.

Yamauchi was born in 1927 in Kyoto. Raised by his mother and grandparents, his career and studies were put on hold by World War II. Although he was too young to fight, he began working at a factory to help the war effort. After the war, he attended Waseda University, but dropped out after his grandfather had a stroke and was unable to lead their family playing-card business, Yamauchi Nintendo Ltd.

Nintendo was founded in 1889 by Yamauchi’s great-grandfather Fusajiro Yamauchi, as a hanafuda playing-card manufacturer that specialized in a Japanese-style playing card that circumvented the Japanese embargo on western goods. Hanafuda became a popular step-in for poker sets in gambling dens in Japan, and Nintendo continued to produce these cards from their native Kyoto for many years.

Ten years into Hiroshi Yamauchi’s presidency at Nintendo, he struck a licensing deal with Walt Disney to create cards based on his characters. This was good for business as the characters and cards became very popular. On a business trip to scout potential partners in the west, Yamauchi came to Cincinnati to visit the US Playing Card Company, famous for their Bee, Bicycle 808, and Aviator brands. After seeing the relatively small scale of the offices and printing press that the largest card company operated, Yamauchi returned to Japan convinced to expand Nintendo’s business.

In the 60s, Nintendo began designing and producing electronic toys, love hotels, and dehydrated noodle packets, but it wasn’t until the 70s that they began working on videogames. After several derivative products, like the Magnavox Odyssey-esque Color TV Game 6, the company set out to enter the US market by creating arcade cabinets. While very successful in Japan, none of the early Nintendo cabinets gained much traction overseas. After the failure of RadarScope, a game that had already gone through manufacturing, Nintendo suddenly found themselves with hundreds of cabinets sitting in the Nintendo of America warehouse in Redmond, Washington, and a game people wouldn’t play.

Yamauchi turned to Shigeru Miyamoto, at the time an artist at the company, to design a game using the same components of RadarScope and that could be easily swapped out for more popular software. Miyamoto and his team created Donkey Kong, which became very popular and led the way for Nintendo’s name becoming synonymous with videogames for the next thirty years. He also became the first foreign owner of a US baseball team, buying the Seattle Mariners. He eventually sold the team to Nintendo of America in 2004.

Yamauchi led Nintendo through the early 2000s with the launch of the GameCube, before retiring in 2002 and passing the reigns on to Satoru Iwata, an artist and producer and former president of HAL Laboratories, a second-party Nintendo studio that made Balloon Fight, EarthBound/Mother, and the Kirby games.

With a slow ease out of office, Yamauchi was active at Nintendo until 2005, when he left the board of directors. He donated 7.5 billion yen to build a cancer treatment center in Kyoto. He watched Nintendo go on to great success with the Nintendo Wii, a product Nintendo would not have released had Yamauchi not expanded the business some 60 years ago. He is largely responsible for Nintendo’s gigantic business, its indelible mark on popular culture, and bringing on the people who are more recognizable Nintendo names today. As of April 2013, Yamauchi was estimated to be the thirteenth richest man in Japan, and the 491st richest in the world with a networth of $2.1 billion USD.

He was said to be a tough, but sensitive man, with a raspy voice. Despite owning a baseball team, he was a man with very little interest in the sport. He had been married for over 60 years to his wife, Michiko, with whom he raised three children. He passed away from complications of pneumonia, and is survived by his wife and three children.