It was apparently a contracted hit. Gunpei Yokoi, father of the Game Boy who failed with the Virtual Boy, left Nintendo and was working with a rival on a new portable game device. Yokoi had too many Nintendo secrets. He had to be out of the picture, say the conspiracy theories. He had to be silenced.
On October 4, 1997, Yokoi was tragically struck dead after being rammed by a car. Or maybe, it was two cars. That’s one popular rumour, anyway. That Yokoi was done in by Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. But according to the facts, these conspiracy theories are complete bs.
The rumours that Yamauchi had Yokoi killed persist in forums and among friends. Type “Gunpei Yokoi” into Google, and the second result in Google’s auto-complete results is “Gunpei Yokoi yakuza”. The US versions of the rumour are more detailed than the Japanese versions, as Google searches for “Gunpei Yokoi” and “yakuza” turn up more results in English than in Japanese. Of course, conspiracy theorists would point to that as evidence of some sort, but that’s merely diving down the rabbit hole. The rumour is not new and began circulating soon after his death, and even after over a decade has past, it doesn’t show any signs of going away.
At Nintendo, Gunpei Yokoi was one of Nintendo’s most beloved and respected employees. A jovial, easy-going guy who loved British cars. His name is now synonymous with the company as he spent the majority of his adult life at Nintendo, joining the Kyoto-based company in the mid-1960s and helping the former hanafuda company solidify its transition to toymaker, with products like the Ultra Hand and the Love Tester. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Yokoi spearheaded the move to video games, developing the Game & Watch series of handhelds in 1980 and later mentoring a young Shigeru Miyamoto.
Yokoi’s greatest success, however, was the Game Boy. Yet if that was his greatest success, Yokoi’s greatest failure was the Virtual Boy. It was a game system that used a head mounted display to create the appearance of 3D graphics. Two years after the Virtual Boy launched, Yokoi was dead.
This is where the conspiracy theorists enter. The cause of Yokoi’s death, they say, wasn’t merely an unfortunate accident, but rather a direct result of the Virtual Boy’s failure. Or Yokoi’s decision to make a gaming machine for another company. Or Yokoi’s decision to leave Nintendo. Or all of them, take your pick.
However, the Virtual Boy wasn’t the reason why Yokoi left Nintendo. As reported in the book Nintendo Magic, a Nintendo employee that worked under Yokoi says that the famed creator was planning to leave Nintendo at age 50, regardless. Yokoi ended up staying on until he was 54, perhaps because of the Virtual Boy, but it sounds like Yokoi was ready to do his own thing, namely setting up his own company, an off beat toy and game maker called Koto Laboratory. The Virtual Boy’s failure might have been an unexpected release for Yokoi, because it did provide him an easier excuse – easier than, say, if it had been a monster hit.
It wasn’t a hit. To this day, the Virtual Boy remains one of Nintendo’s biggest video game failures. “Video game failure” because for much of the company’s early years under president Hiroshi Yamauchi, that’s all the company seemed to do: fail. Business venture after business venture came up short. However, the refocusing on cards and the expansion to toys brought greater success to Nintendo. Yokoi was instrumental in Nintendo’s success, and Yamauchi, being a sharp businessman, certainly must have been aware that with success comes failure. For every Game Boy, there’s a Virtual Boy.
The conspiracy theories pin the crime on Yamauchi, saying that the Nintendo president had Yokoi murdered. While historically, Nintendo does indeed have yakuza connections, the idea that Yamauchi had one of the companies most esteemed and productive former employees killed is just one of many preposterous notions the entire theory is built upon. Well, Yamauchi is rich and powerful, so he controlled the police and could get away with it, theorists will argue. The thing about conspiracy theories is that if something doesn’t work, there’s always another explanation. They’re not built on facts, but fantasy.
There is this notion that game designers are not allowed to leave Nintendo. It’s fuelled by the long tenure noted Nintendo game developers like Shigeru Miyamoto have enjoyed. However, the conspiracy theories contest that it wasn’t merely Yokoi’s leaving Nintendo that led to his death. Loads of people leave Nintendo all the time. Many stay, and why wouldn’t they? Kyoto’s a great city, Nintendo’s a successful company, and there’s job security. One has to really screw up to get fired at Nintendo. To be blunt, it’s a bubble that hasn’t been impacted the same way other game developers have by the declining Japanese market. It’s a good place to be.
Gunpei Yokoi, however, didn’t just leave Nintendo. He left Nintendo and began working with Bandai on a new handheld device, called the WonderSwan. Conspiracy theories like this note that Yokoi was done away with so he couldn’t give away Nintendo secrets. So… he… couldn’t give away Nintendo secrets. Nintendo hardware is popular because players can play Nintendo games on them. That’s the secret. Was he going to tell Bandai that? Considering the competition Nintendo has faced from Sega, Atari and SNK in the handheld market, Bandai was probably the least of its worries.
Yet, the rumours persist in Japan and the US, turning the tragic accident into something out of a bad 1980s suspense film. There are insinuations made by the fact that on the fatal day Yokoi was travelling with Nintendo exec Etsuo Kiso, implying that Nintendo somehow had a hand in this, that it was Kiso who was assigned to make sure Yokoi was in position to be hit by a car. But what’s so odd about Yokoi, who worked his whole life at Nintendo, travelling with someone from… Nintendo?
On October 4, 1997, Kiso and Yokoi were in a minor car accident. Yokoi stepped out of the car on the expressway and was unfortunately hit by another car. According to online sources, the driver of the car was a member of the yakuza, and Yokoi was even hit by two cars, working in tandem.
Just try to follow the logic: Yokoi’s car must get into an accident, then the moment Yokoi examines the damage, two cars hit him. It’s a Japanese expressway, so do both cars ram him from behind? And wouldn’t that be dangerous to the drivers? And if one rams from the side, is it coming off the expressway’s shoulder or the on ramp? Think of the timing and driving skill involved. It just doesn’t make any sense. The other version simply has Yokoi being struck as he got out of his car. Sadly, that version does make sense.
Automobiles are used by the Japanese yakuza in murders and crimes. “A car is one big blunt instrument,” says Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice and co-editor of the Japan Subculture Research Center. “But if yakuza really want to get away with murder, they’ll make it look like a suicide,” explains Adelstein. “In Japan autopsies are performed on only four percent of suicides.” That doesn’t mean Adelstein buys the conspiracy theory in the least – especially based on the facts. And neither should you.
What makes the Yokoi tragedy so susceptible to conspiracy theories is the lack of information online concerning it. It occurred when the internet was just starting to pick up steam, but way before the explosion of blogs. And much of the suspect information online is being taken as gospel.
Newspaper clippings from 1997 unearthed by Adelstein provide a more detailed and accurate description of the unfortunate events that transpired. According to the October 6th edition of the Asahi Newspaper, on the evening of October 4 at around 7:15pm, Kiso rear-ended a small truck on a two-lane Kyoto expressway, sending the truck diagonally into the guard rail. Both Kiso and Yokoi got out of their car to inspect the damage with the truck’s driver, 36-year-old Takashi Okushima, when they were hit from behind by a passenger vehicle.
The driver was 55-year-old Gen Tsushima who, according to the Asahi paper, worked in the tourism industry. Next to Tsushima was his 46-year-old wife. Both sustained injuries to the chest. Okushima was also injured as was Kiso, who suffered two broken legs. Unfortunately, Yokoi wasn’t as lucky. His body was “hit hard”, reports the paper, killing him.
The shoulders on Japanese expressways are narrow, dangerous places. In driver’s education class in Japan, one of the first things students are taught is to be careful when exiting cars, so not to be clipped. It was a fall evening, and no doubt already dark. The Asahi Newspaper reports that neither cars used road flares to alert other drivers, and it appears neither Kiso, who hit the truck, or Tsushima were able to see that well in front of them.
According to The Asahi Newspaper, police were investigating the issue. There do not appear to be any follow ups, and as Adelstein points out, both drivers probably should have been charged with negligence, and Tsushima, who hit Yokoi, with involuntary manslaughter. “Usually, in a case like this, the police would arrest the driver who killed someone for manslaughter,” says Adelstein, who worked as a crime reporter at the Yomiuri Shimbun for 12 years. That doesn’t mean the drivers were not charged, he points out. There just doesn’t appear to be a record of it in Japanese newspapers. Conspiracy theorists will try to latch on to this as some sort of proof of something.
Based on the facts, it wasn’t some elaborate plan by Nintendo’s president to have him done away with. It wasn’t a conspiracy with the Kyoto Police, the Asahi Shimbun, the guy who drove the truck, former Nintendo exec Etsuo Kiso (who is now an exec at a plastics company), a guy who worked in the tourist industry and that guy’s middle-aged wife. Gunpei Yokoi lost his life in a tragic, freak automobile accident. On the day he was laid to rest, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the chief mourner was Yokoi’s wife, Yoko. Even over a decade later, through all the conspiracy theories based on paranoia and fantasy instead of facts, Gunpei Yokoi is missed.