April 21st 1989: Game Boy released

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Game Boy, released in 1989

 

On this day in 1989, the original Game Boy was released in Japan. It was later released in North America in August and in Europe in September 1990. The device was one of the first handheld gaming consoles, making it a groundbreaking invention that revolutionised the concept of videogames by allowing for them to be played on-the-go. The Game Boy was relatively cheap compared to rivals on the market (costing ¥12,500 at launch) and was a huge success, selling almost 120 million units. The designers of the console, the same team who gave us the Game & Watch series, ensured the device handled in a similar way to the familiar Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) with its eight-way D-pad controller and four buttons.

 

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Super Mario Land screenshot

 

Some of the most popular original Game Boy games included: Super Mario Land, which sold over 18 million copies; Tetris, which sold 35 million copies; and the first Pokémon games, released in 1996.

 

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Tetris screenshot

 

Nintendo continues to produce handheld game consoles and the popularity of the Mario and Pokémon franchises endures.

 

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Pokemon Red screenshot

 

The most recent handheld was the Nintendo 3DS, which features touch screen control and 3D graphics; technology only dreamed of in 1989. Nintendo has struggled in recent years to keep up with competitors, and sales of the 3DS and the latest home console the WiiU have been under expectations. I am a loyal Nintendo fan, owning every handheld console since the Game Boy Colour, but I can see why they are having problems. Personally I love the 3DS, but I can understand that the novelty of handheld gaming which was so successful in 1989 is being overshadowed by mobile gaming. Anyone with a smartphone can now play games on-the-go without the need to buy an expensive separate console; the face of the videogame industry has changed drastically from 1989. However this is not the place to overly lament Nintendo’s plight, but to celebrate the 25th birthday of the Game Boy. No matter where Nintendo stand now, they have historically been an incredibly successful and innovative company. So happy birthday Game Boy, thanks for the hours I spent as a kid and still as an adult trying to save the princess and catch em’ all!

 

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Nintendo 3DS, released in 2011

25 years ago today

March 9th 1945: Bombing of Tokyo begins

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American B-29s flying to Tokyo

 

On this day in 1945, the bombing of Tokyo by the United States Air Forces began; the raid is one of the most destructive in history. There had been raids by B-29 bombers since November 1944. The raid on the night of March 9th saw 334 B-29s take off in Operation Meetinghouse, with 279 of them dropping around 1,700 tons of bombs. 16 square miles of the Japanese capital were destroyed, around a million were left homeless and around 100,000 people died as a result of the firestorm. Tokyo saw many raids such as this, with over 50% of Tokyo being destroyed by the end of the Second World War. However the firebombing on the night of March 9/10th was the single deadliest air raid of the war; the immediate deaths were higher than seen at Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki as single events.

 

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Buildings razed to the ground in Tokyo

“Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.
– Curtis LeMay, the American general behind the firebombing campaign

March 2nd 1657: Great Fire of Meireki

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Scroll depicting the Great Fire

On this day in 1657 a fire ravaged the Japanese capital city of Edo (which is now Tokyo). The fire burned for three days, destroying two thirds of the city and claiming 100,000 lives. Edo Castle, a mighty testament to Edo’s rising prosperity and home of the shogun, was lost to the flames. The event is sometimes called the Furisode Fire, in reference to a legend about the cause of the fire. A furisode is the best kimono for an unmarried woman, and as legend has it the fire was ignited by the ceremonial burning of a supposedly cursed kimono which had been owned by several young women who had died soon after receiving the item.

 

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Map of Edo from the 1630s

Edo was particularly susceptible to fire, as the buildings were made mostly of wood and paper and stood very close together. The buildings were also very dry due to a recent drought, providing prime conditions for a fire to spread. The fire forever changed the face of Edo, with new firebreaks installed, streets widened and plaster roofs the norm. This event remains one of the greatest disasters in Japanese history, alongside the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake and the bombing of Tokyo during the Second World War.

January 23rd 1828: Saigō Takamori born

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Saigō Takamori (1828 – 1877)

On this day in 1828, the famous Japanese samurai warrior Saigō Takamori was born in Kagoshima. He went on to lead troops of the Satsuma region as they fought their rivals Chōshū, and opposed the opening and modernising of Japan in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and the ruling Tokugawa Bakufu. He was a leader of the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion against the Meiji Government. Takamori was fighting against Western encroachment and strove to maintain the ‘old ways’.

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Statue of Takamori in Kagoshima City

Takamori is perhaps best known as  the basis for Ken Watanabe’s character in the 2003 film ‘The Last Samurai’. It’s a great film and whilst understandably not historically accurate, it does give an insight into the idea of the ‘last samurai’. Takamori was striving to keep what he thought was a defining feature of Japanese national identity: the samurai. The samurai were the last bastion of an era of isolation which left Japan untouched by foreign powers for hundreds of years. The moment Commodore Perry’s boat arrived in Japan, the samurai saw the beginning of the end. Whilst they failed, and the Meiji Restoration abolition of samurai endured, the samurai remain an intrinsic part of Japanese history and culture. When examining Japanese attitudes to battle in World War Two, and even modern debates over land ownership with China, we can see the residue of the samurai mentality.

January 18th 1769: Ekaku dies

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Hakuin Ekaku (1686 – 1769)

 

On this day in 1769, the Zen Buddhist master Hakuin Ekaku died. He was one of the most important masters of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. Hakuin was born on January 19th 1686 in Hara, a small town at the foot of Mt. Fuji on the Tokkaido Road between Edo (modern day Tokyo) and Kyoto. Rinzai is known for its rather eccentric teaching methods, favouring shouting and sometimes physical violence in order to encourage a student to experience satori (instant enlightenment). Hakuin described satori as like shattering a block of ice. Thus Rinzai was the religion of the samurai warriors, and Soto (the other main Zen school) was for the farmer and the peasant.

 

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A scroll Ekaku drew showing Bodhidharma (founder of Zen Buddhism). The calligraphy reads “Zen points directly to the human heart, see into your nature and become Buddha”

 

The Rinzai school had been deteriorating in the 14th Century, but Hakuin reformed it and bought it back to the mainstream. He stressed the importance of koans (paradoxical, riddle like questions students dwell upon) and zazen (sitting meditation), in order to understand the true nature of reality and experience enlightenment, which is the goal of Zen. He became a famous teacher around Japan, and is credited with popularising Rinzai Zen once more.

He died on 18th January 1769, aged 83. Hakuin left behind over 90 enlightened students to carry on his legacy. Now, Hakuin is probably best known for one particular koan he invented for use in Rinzai training:

 

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

December 13th 1937: Rape of Nanking

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Japanese soldiers kill a Chinese civilian

 

On this day in 1937 the mass murder and rape of Chinese civilians by Japanese troops began in the Chinese capital of Nanking. The incident occurred during the Second Sino-Japanese War following the fall of Nanking to the Japanese. Around 275,000 people were killed, with the horrific brutality continuing for six weeks. The main perpetrators were later found guilty of war crimes and were executed.

 

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Nanking Massacre memorial

Today we remember all those who perished in this act of pure violence, and the Nanking Massacre remains a reminder of the brutality of war.