Monday, June 24, 2024

Nintendo Patriotic Cards from 1942 and 1943 (Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu / 愛國百人一首)

Nintendo has produced games since its inception in 1889 up to the present day, and we are used to associating them with leisure products that provide entertainment, some education, but mostly innocent excitement and fun. These products are typically devoid of religion, politics, or any belief system, which has contributed to Nintendo's eventual global appeal, crossing borders and cultures.

In today's post, we will take a look at a notable exception to this 'neutral' position: two games that played a role in Japanese government propaganda during the Second World War (1939-1945).

The expansionist policies and military actions of Japan in Asia and the Pacific started in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria, a region in northeastern China. This was followed by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937), the Japanese occupation of French Indochina (1940), and the full outbreak of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific in December 1941 after the surprise attack by the Japanese on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

By December 1942, when the first of these games was published, Japan was a year into a broad and bloody world war affecting millions of people across a large area in Asia and the Pacific. Together with its Axis alliance partners, Germany and Italy, Japan was fighting the Allied forces comprising the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, China, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands, India and others.

At this time, the general public back home in Japan was enduring significant hardships due to the ongoing war. The economy was under strain, resources were scarce, and daily life was marked by sacrifices and increased militarization. Although the realities of the war's demands and the early signs of Japan's strategic difficulties, including air raids over Japan, were beginning to affect the population's outlook and daily experienc, propaganda efforts maintained a degree of public morale and support.

In this context, Nintendo and other card manufacturers contributed to such propaganda efforts, either voluntarily or through governmental and societal pressure, by producing so-called Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu (愛國百人一首) games: "One Hundred Patriotic Poems by One Hundred Poets".

Two Nintendo Patriotic cards sets (left and middle) from 1942-'43
and a 1943 book (right) covering the 100 poems included in these games

The Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu game is similar to the well-known Japanese card game Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (小倉百人一首), often shortened to just Hyakunin Isshu, which translates to "One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets."

The difference between Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu and Ogura Hyakunin Isshu is the "patriotic" part.

The Ogura Hyukunin Isshu game is based on a 12th-century anthology of one hundred poems (by one hundred different poets), compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (藤原定家), covering a wide range of subjects and styles. This anthology was intended to be a masterclass in poetry in general.

On the other hand, the Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu consists of one hundred poems (again by one hundred poets) selected specifically to promote nationalism and patriotism in Japan; they were intended to foster a sense of national pride and loyalty to the emperor.

Nintendo Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu (愛國百人一首) card set from December 1942

Apparently, in 1942, the Japanese public was asked to submit candidates for the set of Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu poems, from which a committee of well-known literary scholars, including Nobutsuna Sasaki (佐佐木信綱), selected the final set of one hundred. These were sanctioned by the Japanese government, more specifically, the Information Bureau (情報局), which can be seen as a (war-time) Ministry of Information and Propaganda.

The poems deal with the following topics:

  • Nationalism and Patriotism
  • Loyalty to the Emperor
  • Sacrifice and Duty
  • Military Valor and Honor
  • Unity and Collective Effort
  • Resistance Against Western Influence
  • Historical and Mythological References

It is important to note that these poems were not originally written with propaganda in mind, as they all predate the Japanese period of military expansionist ambition. It is the specific selection and combination of these poems, and the way they were positioned and used, that turned them into a tool for propaganda.

This list of one hundred poems was printed in Japanese newspapers, published in books, and used as the basis for the Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu card game produced (in different forms) by a number of different card manufacturers. Here we see the versions made by Nintendo.

I believe the label on the back indicates the asking price in 1942: 130 sen or ¥1.30 yen.

In line with the patriotic content, the picture on the front includes four Japanese icons: the rising sun, Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms, and ocean waves (hinting at the Hokusai woodblock print).

The large text in the center of the front says Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu (愛國百人一首) in calligraphical script.

In the top right corner the text reads:

  • "Certified by the Information Bureau" (認定 情報局)
  • "Selected by the Japan Literary Association" (選定 日本文學報國會)
  • "Supported by the Mainichi Shimbun" (協力 每日新聞社)

The Mainichi Shimbun was one of Japan's leading newspapers at the time and still exists today. As with all other media in Japan during the wartime, it was under strict government control and censorship.

The bottom right corner includes the company's marufuku trademark, and a statement that this game was "Made by Yamauchi Nintendo" (山內任天堂謹製).

In the left bottom corner, it is stated that the content of the game is in accordance with:

  • The Ministry of the Army (陸軍省)
  • The Ministry of the Navy (海軍省)
  • The Ministry of Education (文部省)
  • The Imperial Rule Assistance Association (大政翼賛會), and
  • The Japan Broadcasting Corporation (日本放送協會)

The Imperial Rule Assistance Association was a central organization in Japan during the Second World War, established to unify political efforts and mobilize society for the war.

A printed 'colophon' is glued to the inside of the box, with further information about the production of the game.

Reading from right to left, and top to bottom, it states the following:

  • Printed December 3, 1942 (印刷 昭和十七年十二月三日)
  • Published December 8, 1942 (發行 昭和十七年十二月八日)
  • Publisher Name: Sekiryo Yamauchi (發行者 山內積良)
  • Publisher Company: General Partnership Yamauchi Nintendo (發行所 合名會社 山內任天堂)
  • Publisher Address: 342 Kagiyacho, Nishiiru Ohashi Shomen-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto (京都市下京區正面通大橋西入鍵屋町三四二)
  • Publisher Telephone: Area 6 number 1470 and 5740 (電話下⑥ 一四七〇番 五七四〇番)
  • Printer Name: Yotaro Watada (印刷者 和多田與太郎)
  • Printer Company: General Partnership Watada Printing Company (合名會社 和多田印刷所)
  • Printer Address: 45 Kawabe-cho, Higashikujo, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto

The publishing date of December 8, 1942, (coincidentally?) has special significance, as this was the one-year anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the Second World War for Japan.

Sekiryo Yamauchi was the second president of Nintendo president, leading the company from 1929 to 1949. He was preceded by the founder Fusajiro Yamauchi and succeeded by the illustrious Hiroshi Yamauchi.

The listed address for Nintendo is the headquarters building, which was recently turned into the Marufukuro Hotel.

The Watada company has been a longstanding partner of Nintendo, working together from the earliest days up until the present.

The listed telephone numbers are a bit mysterious, as they differ slightly from the known numbers at the time (Area 5 number 2470 and 5740). In other versions of this game, the known numbers are given, so this may have been an error that was corrected during production at some point.

The game consists of a cardboard box holding two hundred printed cards.

Also included is a printed sheet with all one hundred poems.

On this sheet, the poet for each poem is mentioned as well, underneath the poem.

Like other card decks used to play Uta-garuta (歌ガルタ) or "Poetry Karuta", the cards come in pairs: one hundred Yomifuda (読み札 or "reading cards") and one hundred corresponding Torifuda (取り札 or "grabbing cards").

Each Yomifuda card contains the complete text of one of the poems and the name of poet (sometimes also a portrait drawing of the poet, but not for these decks). The corresponding Torifuda card only includes the last verse of that poem, written in kana.

Two pairs of poem cards

There are a number of ways to play Uta-garuta, but all variants have in common that during the game, Yomifuda cards are read one by one, and all players then need to locate and grab the corresponding Torifuda card.

A Yomifuda card (left) and corresponding Torifuda card (right)

This is made more challenging (and fun) by the fact that many of the included poems have simliar starting lines, so it is not always immediately clear which poems is read until more is revealed. The reader can create tension by briefly pausing before calling the identifying syllable.

The first eleven syllables of this poem are
identical to the one shown above

Multiple different box versions of Nintendo's 1942 Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu game are known to exist.

Three box versions of Nintendo's 1942 Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu

They differ in the pattern and color of the paper used to decorate the box, which appears to be gift-wrapping sheets.

Possibly, scarcity of materials like paper, cardboard and ink, caused by the war, required the production team to improvise and use what was available.

Some versions have the 'colophon' glued to the back of the box rather than on the inside of the lid.

The printed sheet with all poems was not (no longer?) included in most of these. There are also differences in the material used for the cards.

The version shown here happens to be unused and still has the original paper wrappers and protective sheets.

For this version, they used a thicker type of cardboard than for the other versions. These differences are also probably the result of rationing and scarcity of materials. If it wasn't for the government-sanctioned propaganda purpose, no material would have been granted at all during this time.

During the second part of 1943, the tide of the war was turning against Japan, and although the end of the war was not in sight, the situation was rapidly deteriorating strategically for the Japanese. The Japanese home front was experiencing the strains of prolonged war. Resources were becoming scarcer, and the effects of Allied bombing raids were beginning to impact Japanese cities. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, propaganda efforts continued.

At this time, Nintendo released a second version of the Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu game, as shown here.

The front of the box says Information Bureau (情報局) and Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu (愛國百人一首).

The Nintendo company name is not included anywhere on the outside of the box.

The cardboard box consists of a sleeve and a tray that slides out.

The box is much smaller than the box of the first type, about half its size.

Despite it's smaller size, all one hundred poems are included, with on one hundred Yomifuda and one hundred corresponding Torifuda cards.

However, they are printed on much thinner cardboard, almost paper-like. Overall, the production quality is pretty low, no doubt the result of increasingly limited resources available for anything not strictly military.

On the inside of the box, a 'colophon' is glued with information simliar to that which was included in the game from 1942 shown above, including Nintendo and Watada as publisher and printer, respectively.

The only difference is the dates listed:

  • Printed on September 1, 1943 (昭和十八年九月一日印刷)
  • Published on September 5, 1943 (昭和十八年九月五日發行)

When you stack the cards side by side, the difference in thickness, and resulting quality, between the various versions becomes very visible.

The first two stacks show one hundred cards from two version of the December 1942 set (earlier and later production runs?), while the third stack has the same number of cards, but from the September 1943 version. The thickness of the cards is 0.98mm, 0.84mm and 0.34mm, respectively.

This concludes our coverage of Nintendo's Aikoku Hyakunin Isshu.

It is not my intention with this post to pass judgement, neither condoning nor justifying. The war period is a complex situation, and I do not have any information about the circumstances at Nintendo that led to their participation in what is clearly a propaganda effort. I do not know if they cooperated enthusiastically and voluntarily, or from economical necessity, or if it was forced directly or implicitly.

No doubt, these games are only a small footnote in a very violent and disruptive period of modern history. But they are a part of Nintendo's company history nonetheless.

To close on a lighter note, if you want to learn more about Nintendo's post-war Karuta production, check out this post.

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