24 August 2020

Part 5 of an interview between Shigesato Itoi and Satoru Iwata in Itoi’s series on interviewing company presidents!

「ほぼ日」の「社長に学ぶ!」シリーズを読んでいる。 原作の日本語こちら:https://1101.com/president/iwata05.html

読むシステム: How to read

Shigesato Itoi’s dialogue is indented like this 糸井重里の言葉はこのふうに

And Satoru Iwata’s dialogue isn’t indented 岩田聡の言葉はこのふうに

Learn From the President! Part 5:
Feeling the world is about to change.

During first year of university, in 1978, Japan had it’s first “Computer Corner” in the Seibu department store in Ikebukuro. I’d go there every weekend.

The computer store had PCs that were on display, you could sit in front of a computer and try to write programs. Since an average kid would never afford one otherwise the shop was full of people all day.

I got some gift money to celebrate entering university, and took out a loan so I could get a computer right then.

It was a Commodore PET.

Once I made some programs, I took them with me back to the same Seibu computer corner.

My friend from high school went to a different university, so I was without comrades.

I probably thought that I really needed to show somebody… If I go to the Ikebukuro Seibu department store I could find like-minded enthusiasts to show my programs.

And then, the program which would encourage me the most was being coded at that very moment in the shop by its creator!

(laughter) Ahh, it’s where everyone gathered.

While programming he was almost motionless, except for the turning of his neck.

I was watching from behind when I realised “That bit there is wrong”

“Fixing that should solve the problem, wouldn’t it?”

“Ahh, that’s true.”

He was in his second year of university, and I was a freshman, so we became friends.

One of the shop staff at that vendor happened to be starting up a company called HAL Laboratory. It was that time were invited to work part time.

Somehow this is starting to sound like an American tale.

So, the Seibu department computer corner staff member was the original president of HAL Laboratory?

The company began when that person established but they weren’t the president actually. They were a part of management at the beginning.

At the shop, we gathered like a user’s group type club, and the staff member that’s always there said “I started a company, but if it’s all right with you, would you work for us part time?”. HAL Labs was the company where programming was fun and I made myself at home there.

Was the company already in Yamanashi?

Oh no, the company was first in Akihabara. The company moved to Yamanashi in the 90’s.

Ah so the move was quite later. Well then was it initially like being crammed into one room in Akihabara?

Yeah, a 1 room apartment in Akihabara.


Ahh, it really was a… weird lifestyle.

Iwata-san, did you properly attend university?

I diligently graduated in 4 years.

But I didn’t see myself as an honours student. Thats because my part-time work was always the most fun.

The fundamentals of computing that school taught me has its usefulness, and while I think it was good that I went to university, in reality most of my memories consist of me being useful at work.

Were you someone who recieved your graduation certificate with your left hand?

Note: Probably disrespectful.
According to a google search
- 3 steps forward
- recieve diploma with right hand
- etc
Doing the wrong hand is maybe active rebellion.

I didn’t go that far. But Japan’s universities are not really that hard if your goal is just to graduate in my opinion.

It’s just that I approached my work as if my life depended on it. It was so fun that I couldn’t help it.

And because of that, the part timer kid working at HAL Laboratory joined the company full time.

Yeah. I instantly transitioned into the full time role.

And because there were no senior developers, I had to make the decisions. There was nobody for me to consult with.

The fates must have alligned that a year after my graduation the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System) was released.

Oh! That’s certainly a big deal!

Of course.

At the time, what was your impression of the Famicom?

During my part time employment we made and sold games for computers, but the Famicom had “A unique quality we haven’t seen up to till then”.

See, computers tend to cost hundreds of thousands of yen. So when the Famicom can play games and yet costs only fifteen thousand yen, theres an overwhelming advantage.

100,000 yen vs
 15,000 yen

I thought to myself “If something this good can sell at a price like 15000 yen, it’s going to change the world! I have to get involved with this somehow!”

So, it was by pure luck that one of HAL Laboratory’s investors happened to do some business with Nintendo, and they were kind enough to introduce us.

I asked them “No matter what, I want to work with the Famicom, so we would be indebted if you could introduce us”.

Even now in Japan's culture, the ONLY
way to get in the proverbial door:

Having someone inside open it for you.

And with that I was off to Kyoto. A youngster who was just 24 suddenly appeared at their door.

(Laughter) Surely this must have felt like your first expedition to Ikebukuro Seibu?

Mmm. I came with a suit but they must have felt like I was a kid at a Shichigosan Festival. Then I asked politely, “Please give us work!!”… You know, it just occured to me that they were probably going to give us work regardless of whether I went or not! (Laughter)

Shichi-go-san festival 
or the 7-5-3 festival is where 
kids of ages 7, 5 and 3 dress up 
on November 15 
to celebrate their growth.

Eh? So you got it then.

“Mind if we have a go at that?” they welcomed us. And as we programmed for Nintendo, this was the start of our relationship.

Fascinating. What kind of program was it?

Game software. At the start I worked on the Pinball and Golf games.

I wasn’t alone in this. Everyone at HAL Laboratory was working together. We had a blast making those games then seeing them sell well around the world.

And since we were commissioned with this work, we would have made money regardless. But the fact that “Everyone knows our games” filled me with joy.

Before it was just my high school companion, but now my creations were going global. Its impossible to not be entertained by that.

(Laughter) If you liked singing instead of coding, it’s as if you’ve acquired a huge microphone at this point.

We really reaped the benefits from our chance to work with the Famicom as the console matured.

So your main job was still with Nintendo while at HAL.

During then, HAL Labs made games, and computer hardware, as well as this or that. Thats how the company was.

(Laughter) So it felt like Akihabara?

Yes. A very Akihabara company.

Simply put, “We make things we find interesting and sell it” was the company’s M.O. We could sell anything. The people who appear at the company want to try all manner of things so the plan was “Lets just give it a little try”.

So the company start to grow in size from that?

It wasn’t some rapid onset of growth, but as more work appeared and tasks around computers got bigger, the company grew from 5 employees to 90 over the span of 10 years, roughly.

You could just feel it was a growth industry, after all.

end of part 5

→ Part 6 is here