Sunday, June 7, 2020

Nintendo's washable playing cards from 1953

In the first decades of Nintendo's history, the company grew by automating the manufacturing of hanafuda and Western style playing cards, and by expanding its sales and distribution network throughout Japan.

Although the production process changed during this time, the product itself remained more or less the same: printed paper cards.

It was over sixty years after the company's start in 1889, that the first major product innovation happened, in the early 1950s. According to the timeline on Nintendo's corporate website, in 1953 they "Became the first company to succeed in mass-producing plastic playing cards in Japan."

The first major events in the Nintendo's history, as listed on nintendo.co.jp

This milestone was reached four years after a 21 year old Hiroshi Yamauchi, the great-grandson of founder Fusajiro Yamauchi, took the helm as Nintendo's president.

Before the proud introduction in 1953, it had taken Nintendo quite some effort and time to get to grips with the process necessary to produce these plastic cards, as the printing on plastic was very different from printing on paper, and it was difficult to print colours consistently.

The leaflet shown here is one of the earliest commercial publications that marketed this new product.

NAP card leaflet (front)

Nintendo branded these plastic playing cards as "NAP" cards, which stood for Nintendo All Plastic.


In the leaflet, the NAP card is touted as a revolution in the playing card industry, being more durable and hygienic than paper cards.

The leaflet shows the first four card designs in this new product range, with product codes "NAP 1" to "NAP 4". Eventually, the number of different "NAP" designs would count into the hundreds or even thousands.

NAP card leaflet (inside)

The main product characteristic that is advertised is the fact that the cards are washable. The image on the front also show a card submerged in water, although I doubt whether many people actually would regularly rinse their decks of cards.

Still, because these cards were plastic they did attract less dirt and where less pone to tearing and folding. So indeed, overall a much better product.

The cards were more expensive to make, and could command a related higher retail price, which the public was willing to pay for these better quality cards.


Although Nintendo also continued to produce paper playing cards, as a cheaper variant used for cards aimed mainly at childeren, the plastic cards gradually became the standard.

In the decades that followed, Nintendo continued to use the "all plastic" and NAP branding, as can be seen from the leaflets below from the 1970s and 1980-s, respectively.

Playing cards in a Nintendo leaflet from the 1970s

NAP cards in Nintendo catalogue from 1983 

Returning to the 1950s introductory leaflet, on the back we see the full company name as used at that time:  任天堂骨牌株式会社 (Nintendō Koppai Kabushikigaisha) which translated to Nintendo Playing Card Co.

NAP card leaflet (back)

Also pictured on the back is a set of these new Nintendo All Plastic cards, that came appropriately in transparent plastic packaging.


The introduction of these plastic cards further cemented Nintendo's position as the premiere manufacturer of playing cards in Japan. More importantly, it was first product innovation spearheaded by Hiroshi Yamauchi, as he started directing the company towards further growth. A path with many more new products and innovations still to come in the fifty years he was Nintendo's president, before eventually handing over that role to Satoru Iwata in 2002.

Also check out the previous blog posts featuring the Nintendo card sample book from the late 1960s, a leaflet from the 1970s and the brochure from 1983.

Many thanks to Fabrice Heilig and Isao Yamazaki for helping to locate and scan the NAP document.

2 comments:

  1. I've long wondered about this very thing. Thank you so much for sharing these amazing photos. I wonder who did that ripple in the card and the water in that era? Some sick skills on that pair of mitts.

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  2. Found this post happy cooincidence, while searching if washable cards were still available. Used to be able to get some that would become brittle after washing too many times. A good pairing with the book "cards as weapons".

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