23 September 1889: Nintendo starts making playing cards

Hear the name Nintendo and you probably think of Super Mario and his cartoon brethren. Perhaps it’s the Entertainment System you got that Christmas in 1986, that’s now gathering dust in the attic. Or the television screen you sacrificed to an overly exertive session on the Wii Fit.

What may not come to mind is a pack of playing cards. But if you were sitting in your living room in Kyoto, Japan, at the end of the 19th century, that’s exactly what your Nintendo would have looked like – a deck of beautifully hand-painted ‘Hanafuda’ cards.

Western-style playing cards first arrived in Japan with European missionaries in the 16th century. The Japanese soon became hooked on them – quite literally so, leading to a crackdown on gambling. Japan then entered a long isolationist phase, and the cards were banned.

Traditional versions of the playing cards appeared from time to time. And so long as they weren’t used for gambling, they were mostly tolerated. Then, with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan began to open itself up to the outside world once more.

While playing cards were no way near as popular as they had once been, an entrepreneur named Fusajiro Yamauchi set up a business in Kyoto in September 1889 making Hanafuda cards.

These ‘flower cards’ consisted of 48 ornate cards with floral designs, which were divided into 12 suits, representing the months of the year.  Yamauchi called the company ‘Nintendo Koppai’.

Today, Nintendo, a company with a market cap in the region of £10bn, and its headquarters in Kyoto, still makes Hanafuda cards – along with a range of other traditional playing cards and board games for the Japanese market.

But for us in Britain, we’ll just have to go back to endangering the furniture with another round of Mario Power Tennis.

Also on this day

23 September 1641: the Merchant Royal sinks with 1.5 million ounces of gold

On this day in 1641, the Merchant Royal became the most valuable shipwreck in history when it sank off Cornwall with over a billion pounds’ worth of gold. Read more here.