Best Of 2020: How Nintendo, Pokémon And Japanese Culture Shaped Global Tastes Through Pure Invention

Greatest Of 2020: How Nintendo, Pokémon And Japanese Tradition Formed International Tastes Via Pure Invention

Pure Invention Matt Alt© The Crown Publishing Group

Over the vacation season we’ll be republishing a collection of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and different options from the earlier twelve months that we think about to be our Better of 2020. Hopefully, this will provide you with an opportunity to atone for items you missed, or just get pleasure from trying again on a yr which did have some highlights — trustworthy!

This function was initially printed in August 2020.


The Again to the Future motion pictures could be greatest recognized for his or her seat-of-your-pants time-hopping sense of journey, whip-smart construction and American nostalgia, however additionally they function a socio-economic lens on the time by which they have been made. Marty McFly, for instance, may not return to precisely the identical 1985 he left within the opening act of the primary movie, however that’s okay as a result of his father is now a profitable writer with a BMW — a concise piece of commentary that sums up the prevailing political outlook of the ‘80s very nicely.

One other second happens within the third and ultimate (till the inevitable reboot) movie when ‘50s Doc Brown comments that a failed DeLorean component has ‘Made in Japan’ written on it. The joke that follows depends on data that post-war Japan remodeled itself in a really brief time period to develop into an financial powerhouse and mass exporter of the best expertise — one thing that might have appeared unimaginable within the Fifties, though the seeds of its revival have been already sown and sprouting.

Very similar to Marty McFly, for a technology who grew up taking part in video video games since childhood, veneration of Japan and the Japanese creators who’ve formed the medium is not precisely uncommon. Whether or not you are a hardcore fanatic with an enormous console assortment or an occasional participant who enjoys the odd spherical of Mario Kart, Japan’s affect on gaming and gaming-adjacent popular culture is clear to even informal onlookers, and many people share an admiration — and fascination, even — of all issues Japanese.

What would possibly shock you is simply how profoundly Japanese merchandise and concepts have knowledgeable world tastes from the post-war years to the current day, forecasting and birthing tendencies that might take the West by storm months, typically years, later.

That is the thesis of a brand new ebook written by Matt Alt, Tokyo-based writer, translator and localisation specialist. In Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Tradition Conquered the World he posits that Japan has led cultural tendencies across the globe because the mid-twentieth century by means of the invention and distribution of varied important however crucially inessential gadgets.

“It’s a story about products,” Alt tells us by way of e mail, “but even more about the human dramas playing out behind their creation and adoption. Products are how the vast majority of humanity interacts with Japan on a daily basis, but most consumers know little if anything about the people and the society that gave rise to them.” Clearly, the listing of shopper merchandise that originated in Japan may be very lengthy certainly, however Alt got here up with standards to slim the sphere and provides the venture focus. In the end, the ebook contains some very completely different however equally influential merchandise, together with Sanrio’s Hey Kitty, Sony’s Walkman and on-line imageboard 4chan, in addition to Nintendo’s Famicom/NES, the Sport Boy and Pokémon – all of which he explores intimately.

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“I had a general sense of the sorts of products I wanted to cover, but there are so many out there. After a lot of thinking and many discussions with other people, I came up with the framing concept of “fantasy supply gadgets.” Products that are inessential, inescapable, and influential (in terms of changing the way we look at the world, or Japan, or both). That really helped guide the final selection.”

Mario's facial features and the Mushroom Kingdom's cute aesthetic put it squarely in the kawaii zone.
Mario’s facial options and the Mushroom Kingdom’s cute aesthetic put it squarely within the kawaii zone. (Picture: Nintendo Life)

So, it wasn’t merely a case of selecting a bunch of cool merchandise; there have been good causes behind selecting the Famicom over, say, the best-selling online game console of all time. “I picked the Famicom over the PlayStation 2 because I was most interested in unraveling the stories of how the very first iterations of a given fantasy-device came to be. The reason being, I was interested in that phase shift, the rare moments when a product transformed into something more than just another product to become an entirely new way of living. The Famicom represented the advent of modern console gaming, with all the ripple effects that had on the way we spend time with each other and alone, even our identities. The PS2 was a great machine, but by its very nature was derivative — there’s that “2” in its title. The PlayStation gets more attention in the book as the moment 3D gaming came into our lives, and for serving up one of the most compelling fantasies of all, Final Fantasy VII. So too Gunpei Yokoi’s Game Boy, which taught us the pleasures of gaming on the go, often together with friends. The Game Boy, and Satoshi Tajiri’s Pokémon Red and Blue, are the real stars of the video gaming chapter.”

I got here up with the framing idea of “fantasy delivery devices.” Merchandise which might be inessential, inescapable, and influential

Given the wealth of potential merchandise to analysis and write about, some private favourites inevitably fell by the wayside. “There were many things I wanted to cover but couldn’t due to space constraints or simply keeping the narrative moving. There’s a great story to be told about Nintendo’s earliest days, as a struggling toymaker in the 1960s and 1970s. Another thing I wanted to cover but ended up not was what I call fantasy foods — things like Cup of Noodles, or even sushi, that profoundly transformed our palates and lifestyles. But they’re foods and thus “important” — if you’re hungry enough you’re going to consume them out of need. I was more interested in things that compelled us to consume them out of something other than necessity, because that says a lot more about them, and us.”

Alt has lived in Japan for a few years now, however he felt an attraction to the nation and its cultural obsession with all issues robotic and kawaii (that means ‘cute’ or ‘cute’ – assume Hey Kitty, Kirby or, sure, Mario) lengthy earlier than he moved there. “I have always felt the pull of things Japanese,” he says. “When I was a kid, growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, it was mainly toys: giant robots, monsters, and superheroes so different from the ones in Western fantasies. There are a lot of books out there that do deep dives into specific aspects of Japanese culture, like kawaii or video games or anime and manga, but I wanted more of a birds-eye view that explored the big picture of why the tiny island nation of Japan has such an outsized cultural gravity on the global stage.”

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Could this be the ultimate kawaii culture crossover?
Might this be the final kawaii tradition crossover? (Picture: Nintendo Life)

Whereas offering that historic chook’s eye viewpoint, Alt additionally manages to succinctly discover how younger folks worldwide have more and more tied their identities to merchandise during the last century. “Things from Japan are so key to our leisure lives, our fantasy lives, even our identities. I wanted to try and quantify that phenomenon, and I knew it had to be multi-faceted in its approach, because even if you’re (say) a gamer you’re undoubtedly at least aware of anime or karaoke or Hello Kitty or Marie Kondo or what have you. There’s a lot of cross-pollination going on. That’s where the idea of the book came from.”

One key side that Alt highlights early on is how, opposite to the West, there’s by no means actually been a tradition of placing apart ‘infantile‘ issues in Japan. “The first foreigners to visit Japan after the opening of its ports in the 1850s were shocked by how much effort Japanese put into making toys and how many Japanese continued to play with them into adulthood. That sense of play is really key to Japan’s shokunin (craftsperson) tradition, in which artisans honed their crafts along traditional lines for years before striking out with something ingenious and new. Japan has been home to large cities for many hundreds of years, and those vibrant urban centers, like all vibrant urban centers, bred a hunger for novelty in the form of new trends or products or whatever stimulates and amuses. Back then, it was amusing poetry in the form of senryu and haiku or thrilling kabuki performances or visually striking woodblock prints. In our modern consumer era, it takes the form of elaborate action figures or fun electronic gadgets or new games. But the underlying hunger for something new and fun is exactly the same.”

Again [in the 1850s, novelty] was amusing poetry within the type of senryu and haiku or thrilling kabuki performances or visually placing woodblock prints. In our trendy shopper period, it takes the type of elaborate motion figures or enjoyable digital devices or new video games.

That starvation is arguably mirrored within the multi-generational enchantment of Nintendo’s merchandise and the corporate’s mission assertion to “provide products and services that surprise and delight consumers”. The notion that in Japanese tradition ‘copying’ doesn’t carry the detrimental connotations it does within the West is especially fascinating in gentle of Nintendo’s early ventures within the online game enterprise. In its pre-Famicom days, the corporate explicitly copied concepts and ideas from others, and Yamauchi even as soon as recommended that “everyone should release their software openly” – an fascinating distinction to the corporate’s trendy strategy, and one which appears incompatible with the enterprise realities of IP safety.

“It’s a quote that hasn’t aged well for him, to be sure,” Alt agrees. “He said it back in the late Seventies, when Nintendo was essentially a copycat, producing clones of more popular games like Pong or Breakout or Space Invaders, and rightfully taking a lot of heat for it from other game makers. By all rights Nintendo could well have ended up a footnote in gaming history, but key hires like Gunpei Yokoi and Shigeru Miyamoto transformed them into a Disney-level cultural powerhouse — literally, as in more children recognizing Mario than Mickey by the early 1990s. The reason being that those two turned out to have a knack for storytelling through the medium of games. Once Nintendo emerged as the industry’s leader in the mid-Eighties, Yamauchi really cracked down on anyone infringing on Nintendo’s intellectual property, or even simply producing compatible games without Nintendo’s express permission, which says a lot about how he really felt.”

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Whereas researching for the ebook, Alt was in a position to discuss in-depth with a number of of the folks behind the merchandise, together with the designer of the Famicom, Masayuki Uemura, and it seems that Uemura had an surprising hyperlink to one of many different merchandise Alt was writing about.

“As someone who grew up playing the NES in real-time when it first came out, I was overjoyed that Uemura-san agreed to talk to me. Right at the start of the discussion it emerged that he’d agreed to speak with me because he saw (in the proposal I’d sent) that I was writing about Kosuge’s Jeep, a tin toy made out of metal scavenged from U.S. military bases in 1945. It was made by a toymaker named Matsuzo Kosuge, and seems to have been the first domestically manufactured product put on the Japanese marketplace after war’s end. Uemura grew up playing with those jeeps himself. Making the connection between that toy and the even bigger hit Uemura ended up making decades later was really a profound moment of connection for me.”

Studying the ebook (or listening to the audiobook, in our case), the hyperlinks between these seemingly disparate merchandise and tendencies happen extra often and mix collectively extra naturally than you may think. We puzzled if the ebook’s by means of line from post-war societal circumstances to Pokémon and 4chan was mapped out in Alt’s thoughts from the very starting or if it was discovered within the writing and analysis.

even once I could not meet [a creator] personally, there was loads of fascinating data on the market. Typically much more so, as recollections can fade through the years

“A little of both,” he continues. “The Walkman (1979) is necessarily going to come before the Famicom (1983). But it was important that each product tell a different facet of the overall big-picture story, so there’s some back and forth, such as how Mario pops up in the Hello Kitty chapter, as another example of bobble-headed kawaii design, even though she’s from 1974 and he’s from 1981. I have to give credit where credit is due here: my editor, Meghan Houser, was an absolute whiz at structural advice and really helped me refine the narrative that way.”

Whereas Alt was lucky sufficient to interview a number of of the folks behind these fantasy supply gadgets, others proved extra elusive. “Without going into details, I’ll just say that big companies often don’t have much incentive to work with writers who aren’t under their direct control. Fortunately, there is a wealth of information out there in Japanese; most key creators have already been interviewed extensively or even published memoirs themselves, so even when I couldn’t meet one personally, there was plenty of interesting information out there. Sometimes even more so, as memories can fade over the years. Old interviews from Japanese TV and magazines and books were a godsend, and often filled with details that differed from those of more modern tellings. Companies often try to reinvent their histories as time goes on, so it’s important to go back to that kind of material even when you do land an interview.”

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