Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are the prelude to serious ideas. —CHARLES EAMES, 1961
shokunin tradition places innovation secondary to the mastering of a chosen medium’s form, finish, and presentation. Only after long years of rote practice might one aspire to making something new. You might call it thinking inside the box.
Ironically, given this hyperfocus on detail, form, and etiquette, it was the sense of playfulness that most struck early observers of this exotic land.
In spite of the name, Kosuge’s company was more of a studio than a factory. It was a think tank for toys, with all the expertise and equipment needed to create playthings from nothing more than imagination and raw material.
“Kosuge the Car Man.” By 1935, his little workshop wasn’t so little anymore. He employed some two hundred workers, among them many of the city’s top tinsmiths.
Off the makeshift assembly line rolled a tiny convoy of ten-centimeter-long windup replicas of the U.S. military’s ubiquitous daily conveyance.
in Japan, where the process of creation begins with imitation, copying signals the beginning of something new.
In a land where children had been stripped of their heroes and everything else, Kosuge made the occupying army his brand. Every Allied jeep that whizzed by on the streets unwittingly promoted the product.
Key to the jeep’s success was the ambiguity of its message. “Japanese grown-ups hated toys of military vehicles, because they’re why we lost the war,” recalled Eiichiro Tomiyama, founder in 1924 of the toy company Tomiyama, now known as Tomy. “To Americans, it’s different; they’re shining examples of military success. I knew they would sell abroad.”
So it was that in August of 1947, General MacArthur’s economic team directed that “all efforts be made to ramp up production of toys for export,
Mighty Atom perfectly captured youngsters’ excitement about the future. Born in a postwar baby boom, they were too young to remember wartime deprivations, and grew up amid an economy growing by leaps and bounds.
He shared freely of his artistic and business knowledge and paid starving colleagues to assist him in meeting his crushing deadlines. More than a few of those Tezuka took under his wing would later become stars of the manga world.
Tatsumi convinced six other artists to join him in a collective he called the Gekiga Workshop. Their first act was to mail out a postcard manifesto announcing their existence to publishers, newspapers, editors, and fellow artists—including Tezuka himself. Its concluding lines read: The supersonic growth of film, radio, and television in recent years has spawned a new form of story-driven manga that we call gekiga. There is a demand for entertainment intended for adolescents, one unfulfilled because there has never been a forum for such content. These readers are gekiga’s target audience. The
The Gekiga Workshop lasted but three years before disagreements over direction drove its members their separate ways in 1960, but the die was cast: Japanese adolescents were jumping ship to gekiga-inspired content in droves. Contrast this to America, where concerns over juvenile delinquency led to the establishment of the draconian Comics Code of 1954. It reads like a mirror-world doppelgänger of Tatsumi’s declaration, demanding the elimination of “lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations,” insisting that “crime is depicted as a sordid and unpleasant activity,” declaring “sex perversion” and even the concept of “seduction” as off-limits, and stipulating that “in every instance good shall triumph over evil.” The Comics Code relegated a generation of American comic-book talent to the role of babysitters.
Rhapsodized in songs from the Beach Boys to Van Morrison, transistor radios were the iPods of their generation: a metaphor for fun and independence, made in Japan.
The semiconductor industry analyst Jim Handy estimates that, altogether, thirteen sextillion have been produced since the day of their inception in 1947. A sextillion is one followed by twenty zeros—meaning there are many more transistors on Earth than there are stars in the Milky Way.
The “featherweight” headphones included with the very first Walkman were startlingly compact for their time. The first production model, officially called the TPS-L2, was a strange beast by modern portable-listening standards. Roughly the dimensions of a paperback book, it was significantly larger than even the old TR-63 transistor radio; there was no way it would fit in a pocket.
The first hit arcade game, Pong, debuted in a shabby Sunnyvale, California, bar in September of 1972. It was created by Al Alcorn, an engineer at a Silicon Valley start-up called Atari, a company that took its name from the Japanese word for cornering an opponent in the game of Go.
Fifty dollars a week was considered a good take for a pinball machine; the best Pong machines regularly brought in two hundred dollars.
According to one estimate, so many Japanese adults play pachinko today that the industry constitutes roughly 4 percent of the nation’s entire GDP—more than the take of all the casinos of Las Vegas and Macau combined.
Breakout wasn’t a form of gambling, of course. It was simply a video game. But Bushnell, figuring that high-tech Japan might find arcade games as compelling as Americans did, forged a relationship with a Tokyo-based amusement company called Namco. Founded
Tomohiro Nishikado’s Space Invaders. Released in the summer of 1978, it represented the first step in transforming video games from simple ball-and-block diversions into something cinematic.
It had responsive controls. It had charming graphics—the jagged little aliens were, arguably, the first recognizable characters in the world of video games.
Coffee shops threw out their old Formica tables for Invaders tabletops; some even began dispensing their signature beverage for free, as customers spent far more in a gaming session than they would have on the drink.
Yamaguchi thought this over for a moment. Then she made a proposal: She’d make a Kitty wallet just for them. It would be pink, and finished just like an expensive brand. But it would feature Kitty, and be priced right, so nobody would have to do anything weird to buy one. The girls’ faces lit up. The wallet debuted in 1996,
Just twelve months later, at the end of 1999, Nintendo announced that the series had earned $5 billion—roughly a cumulative equivalent to the size of the entire U.S. game industry that year—all by itself. America—no,
The Game Boy itself, now improbably relevant again in 1998, was an heir to both Japan’s toy-making traditions and the trail blazed by the Walkman; even its name was an obvious nod to this hallowed founding father of portable electronic gadgetry. The monsters that paraded through its virtual world were downright kawaii: big headed, soft, and cuddly; even the critics at Time were forced to acknowledge Pikachu as “the most celebrated icon since Hello Kitty.”
he co-founded a company dedicated to creating ideas for video games and selling them to bigger companies—a sort of digital version of the toy think tank that Kosuge had run back in the prewar era. The sale of Pokémon to Nintendo, and its smashing success, represented a vindication for both himself and everyone like him.
It had the game world’s first truly recognizable protagonist in the form of its pizza-shaped hero, plus a mix of colorful foils named Inky, Pinky, Blinky, and Clyde. And it had a mesmerizing sonic backdrop: wakka-wakka-wakka. The mixture of simplicity, fun, and strategy elevated Pac-Man from a hit game to a societal phenomenon,
It was somehow…comfortable. It was our first exposure to kawaii design, though none of us had any idea at the time.
Miyamoto’s manager, Gunpei Yokoi, came up with the core idea for the game after watching an old Popeye cartoon. In “A Dream Walking,” animated by Fleischer Studios in 1934, Olive Oyl sleepwalks through a construction site. As Popeye and Bluto compete to rescue her from the girders of a skyscraper being built, they knock each other from level to level in a stalemate until the sailorman cracks his signature can of spinach. (This classic trope, incidentally, also inspired Toru Iwatani to incorporate the “energizer pellets” into Pac-Man.) Nintendo’s negotiations for the rights to Popeye the Sailor Man fell through, but the gameplay remained.
Bluto became a gorilla, and Olive Oyl a blonde in pigtails. And Popeye became Jumpman, no longer a sailorman but an everyman clad in red cap and blue overalls.
Released in Japan in 1983, its appearance in America and Europe two years later single-handedly revived a global gaming industry the vast majority of observers considered dead and buried.
By 1993, Nintendo was making more money than all of Hollywood’s top five studios put together,
“lateral thinking with withered technology.” In plain English, it meant that when Nintendo developed a new product, they stuck with cheap and proven off-the-shelf components instead of gambling untold sums on creating cutting-edge new ones themselves. This seemingly retrograde mindset, completely at odds with the envelope-pushing attitudes of most tech companies, crystallized in the product for which Yokoi would be most remembered.
Released in 1989, his Game Boy did for video gaming what the Walkman had done for music in 1979.
With the Game Boy they could play anywhere, anytime. Similar to the Walkman, the Game Boy wasn’t state-of-the-art technology. In contrast to the high-tech, full-color portable machines released by competitors, Nintendo’s machine featured a monochromatic display with a noticeable blur whenever characters moved quickly.
Just as the ability to watch Astro Boy at home trumped the fact its animation was quite cheap looking—just as the Walkman’s portability far outweighed the fact the earliest versions couldn’t record music—convenience and content trumped all else.
For while the specs may have suffered, in nearly every other way the Game Boy was the superior product. It was stylishly neutral in design: neither masculine nor feminine, neither childish nor adult, neither high-tech nor retro. Rivals, clad in angular, jet-black plastic, virtually screamed high tech—the kind of things a teenage boy might use to impress his circle of friends. The Game Boy, on the other hand, was designed for comfort. Its smaller size (roughly that of a paperback book), its deliberately disarming name, its gray color scheme, and its gently rounded edges almost begged you to carry it along, settling into the palm of your hand as if by instinct when you did. It is tempting to describe it as kawaii. Meanwhile, it boasted a superior battery life, and—key for any portable electronic device—it was nearly indestructible. Truly, the things could take an unbelievable beating.
But most of all, the Game Boy had the games. Popular
In fact, if all its incarnations, such as the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance, are included, the Game Boy is the top-selling game machine of all time.
The console wars were a head-to-head competition over the specifications of cutting-edge hardware. The Game Boy represented a triumph of content and convenience over tech.
scaled-down black-and-white versions of beloved NES classics like Super Mario Land, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and the Castlevania series.
Grown-ups loved it for the game it came packaged with: Tetris, a gripping puzzle that had been developed in a Soviet computer lab
It also proved incredibly popular among girls and women, who, according to one Nintendo of America survey, constituted 46 percent of all Game Boy users.
He began submitting articles to game magazines. Together with an illustrator friend he launched a fanzine filled with strategies for conquering arcade and console games. He called it what he called someone like himself: Game Freak. In 1989, the pair launched a game company by the same name.
Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi had compromised on many things when designing the Game Boy, but one function he refused to live without was the Game Link Cable for networking two of the devices together. The
This was a world in which kids would need to rely on their own wits, find their own comrades, and devise their own tools to navigate. Though Tajiri was already in his mid-twenties by the time the Lost Decades began, he never stopped feeling the pain of his lost childhood pleasures. That is what made the game so compelling to children experiencing similar things around the world.