'Nintendo' Might Not Mean What You Think

The common assumption is that "Nintendo" (任天堂) means "leave luck to heaven" or even "to leave one's fortune in the hands of fate". Those assumptions, however, could be wrong.

A new book titled The History of Nintendo 1889-1980: From Playing-Cards to Game & Watch points out that the company's name could have a different meaning.

According to the book, "do" (堂) - which means "shrine" or "sanctuary" - is frequently used by Japanese companies to add prestige to their name. "Nin" means "let someone do".

The interpretation of "ten" (天) is typically viewed from a literal, modern point-of-view and not in a historical prospective. "Ten" is the same kanji character as in "Tengu" (天狗). What's the connection?

The History of Nintendo explains that when Nintendo was originally founded in the late 19th century as a playing card company, then company president Fujisaro Yamauchi was brainstorming ways to get his company out of a hanafuda sales slump. The company's pricey cards were not doing well, so Yamauchi came up with the idea of selling lower quality cards under the name of "Tengu".

The selection of Tengu was no accident. Tengu had been a symbol for playing cards and illegal gambling. The reason for this is that the Tengu character has a long nose. Moreover, the word for "nose" (hana) is pronounced the same as the word for "flower" (hana). (The word "hanafuda" (花札) uses the kanji for flower.) According to The History of Nintendo, those visiting the pleasure quarters of Osaka and Kyoto would rub their nose as a sign that they were looking for gambling games.

As Yamauchi made hanafuda playing cards, the connection of hana and Tengu would not have been lost on the businessman. Other hanafuda makers also used Tengu inspired names.

The History of Nintendo argues that "Nintendo" (任天堂) could then mean "the temple of free hanafuda" or "the company that is allowed to make (or sell) hanafuda". As the book points out, even Hiroshi Yamauchi, the great-grandson of the company's founder, has admitted that he does not know the true meaning of the company's name, saying that "to leave one's fortune in the hands of fate" was a "plausible explanation".

"Plausible" and easier to explain than going through historical context. The book does acknowledge that there are no archives or historical records that can validate or invalidate interpretations of the company's name.

The History of Nintendo 1889-1980 was written by Florent Gorges in collaboration with Isao Yamazaki. Gorges, who writes for Japanese magazine Nintendo Dream, was involved in the organisation of the Nintendo Museum exhibition in Osaka in 2007. He also heads up Pix'n Love Editions, which published a French edition of my book on Japanese game centres, Arcade Mania.

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