Super Mario Nation: how Japan became a pop culture superpower

March 10 saw the annual advent of one of the least important days in the global calendar – Mario Day (‘Mar 10’ = ‘Mar10’ in text-speak), a whole 24 hours devoted to celebrating the cultural influence of one of the Japanese gaming giant Nintendo’s most popular and lucrative characters, Super Mario, the all-time hero and saviour of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Is Mar10 Day just a simple, money-spinning marketing-gimmick upon Nintendo’s behalf? Certain high-up Japanese politicians would disagree. To them, Super Mario is a tool of geopolitical influence, to be wielded mercilessly in the name of a global culture-war against the nation’s enemies.

Cultural Olympics

In August 2016, at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics, as part of the hand-over to the Games’ next hosts Tokyo, an iconic big green pipe appeared on stage, immediately recognisable to millions as one of the very same pieces of brightly coloured cartoon apparatus used as handy warp-travel devices by Nintendo’s portly Italian-American plumber ever since 1985’s Super Mario Bros first appeared on the Kyoto-based company’s earliest home console, the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

From this pipe emerged a highly unexpected figure: Japan’s then-Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, cosplaying as Super Mario by virtue of wearing the hero’s habitual bright red cap.

Memes of “Super Abe” quickly went viral online -- which was the purpose of the stunt. The presentation may have seemed childish to some, but its intent was deadly serious. Abe explained thus: “I borrowed the power of Japan’s characters as I wanted to show Japan’s soft power.”

Soft power” is a concept first popularized by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye in the late 1980s. Further developed in Nye’s 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, the idea was defined as the way a nation might leverage its cultural output and national values to gain what it wants from other countries, rather than using military force, sanctions, or other economic incentives.

In the post-Cold War world of the 1990s and early 2000s, the US was clearly the global military hegemon, but it was also its leading cultural hegemon. International bodies like the IMF and WTO were often seen as de facto proxies of Washington, whilst cultural and media institutions like Hollywood spread positive perceptions of key American values of the day (but no longer, I think …) like freedom and democracy.

If the populations of other nations embraced the key American ideals promoted via the country’s late 20th century soft power, the thinking went, then they would place pressure on their governments to reform their own domestic governance. In the end Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, minority rights, free speech, free thought and free-market economics would spread the whole planet over without a shot being fired. It was Francis Fukuyama’s much-heralded “End of History”.

Turning Japanese

However, history did not end in the 1990s and the limits of American soft power can be immediately seen by taking a glance at China, Russia, Africa and the Middle East, where the American way of life is widely repudiated. Yet as American soft power declines, opportunity arises for others to steal its place. On the current 2024 Global Soft Power Index, Japan stands in fourth position, behind only the US, UK and its great regional rival China.

As Foreign Policy magazine memorably put it in an article entitled “Japan’s Gross National Cool” back in 2002, thanks to fashionable brands like Nintendo, in the post-Cold War era Japan had become the world’s first ever “Pokémon Hegemon”, a reference to the company’s other chief money-making stable of characters, the ultra-cute Pokémon, or “Pocket Monsters” creatures. Not a nuclear power, and long barred constitutionally from using its military abroad, Japan had to rely on the likes of Pikachu and Co to get ahead in geopolitics instead, the article claimed.

If nothing else, this strange cultural achievement brought in tourist-dollars. In 2016, when Shinzo Abe sprang out of a warp-pipe in Rio, the number of foreign tourists entering Japan during the first six months of the year hit 11.7 million, the first time this figure had ever exceeded 10 million. And, in a pop-culture world, the main reason these tourists were visiting was not necessarily to see Mount Fuji or an exhibition about the artworks of Hiroshige and Hokusai; the tourists were more likely to skew younger and visit anime museums instead.

According to a 2015 analysis by US academic Andrew Rose, “Like Me, Buy Me: The Effect of Soft Power on Exports”, a 1 percent increase in a nation’s soft power can cause a 0.8 percent increase in exports. Super Mario and Pikachu’s popularity doesn’t just help to sell their own Nintendo games, but also their parent country and its products in a wider sense.

Super Mario World domination

Within such a purely “hearts and minds” theatre of combat, Japan’s Super Mario could easily become a cultural superweapon, it began to be perceived. As long ago as 1990, one US survey found Mario was more recognised amongst American children than Mickey Mouse, and Nintendo is often identified as Japan’s rough equivalent of Disney. According to 2021 figures, Nintendo’s Pokémon were the world’s number one combined media franchise of any kind, generating US$100 billion in all-time revenue, whilst Super Mario was the ninth most profitable, generating nearly $35 billion.

Disney is frequently viewed as a key disseminator of American values via its imaginative influence on small children. The sparkly, pink-clad “Disney Princess” has become an archetype enthusiastically imitated amongst little girls worldwide. So what might the increasingly Disney-like soft power result of Super Mario upon the world’s children have been? Nothing less than to greatly ‘Japanify” the very experience of non-Japanese childhood itself by stealth.

Super Mario’s primary creator, designer Shigeru Miyamoto, admits that the content of his games is based substantially upon the experiences of his own childhood growing up in rural Japan, where he would encounter fish in rivers, run through fields, jump around, roll down hills and explore caves, woods and old ruins – Super Mario behaves remarkably similarly.

Some of these experiences were universal to small children everywhere. However, other elements of the Mario games are rooted very firmly in experiences and figures sourced very specifically from a Japanese childhood. The basic level architecture of the games, such as clouds, hills and flowers, are often bedecked with eyes, something which at first simply appears cute, but actually reflects the native Shinto tradition of animism, in which each element of the natural world is thought to be alive with Nature-spirits or minor gods termed kami. Likewise, many of the enemies in the games are based upon yokai, native Japanese spooks, demons, monsters and ghosts which are very well known locally, but not necessarily abroad.

Soft toys, hard power

Despite being the greatest creator of that most quintessentially modern of media formats, the videogame, Miyamoto often comes across as something of a traditionalist, with his titles frequently intended to recreate the intense nostalgia he feels for the now vanished Japan of his youth. However, as the increasingly profitable phenomenon of retro-gaming, in which adults seek out the graphically outdated 8-bit and 16-bit titles of their own lost youths shows, nostalgia for vanished childhoods is now a key element of the global videogaming arena too.

Analysis of videogame-related products on, an online marketplace for various home-crafted objects, demonstrates Nintendo-related products overwhelmingly outnumber those of any other videogame company. Many of these come in the form of Amigurumi, a style of Japanese crocheted stuffed toys, of a kind which appear to make the premise of the 2015 Super Mario spin-off title Yoshi’s Woolly World come true.

When Western homes become filled with Chain Chomp bean-bags and Shy Guy plushes, or cuddly Piranha Plants sprout within actual plant-pots and fluffy home-made slippers begin to appear in the shape of Super Mushroom power-ups with eyes, it is not only a reflection of the immense public popularity of these key enemies and items from Nintendo’s Mario series – in a wider sense, it is also as if the Japanese Shinto traditions of an animist world filled with yokai has mysteriously become replicated across the lounges and bedrooms of the Western world.

Thus, when exporting Miyamoto’s childhood memories to the West electronically, Nintendo has accidentally caused American and European players to “relive” aspects of a quintessentially Japanese childhood by proxy, educating them about native Japanese culture and folklore by stealth. This has helped raise an entire generation to be quasi-Japanese in some sense whether they consciously knew it at the time or not, making such kids automatically primed to be well-disposed towards Japan when they grow up.



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Your childhood: Made in Japan

As nearly one in three American homes owned a NES during the 1980s, that is an awful lot of childhood goodwill for the contemporary Japan to harvest. What will the ultimate effect of this phenomenon be?

Primarily, it will be economic. Japan’s 1980s economic success was based largely upon innovations in management-style and supply chains which, in the end, were easily analysed and copied by Western corporations, leading to a loss of their original competitive advantage.

Subsequent Japanese economic success based upon innate character design genius and cultural authenticity is, however, rather more difficult for outsiders to successfully replicate, as endless less successful Western clones of Nintendo franchises like Pokémon (themselves also substantially based upon native legendary yokai) demonstrate. Inferior occidental imitators like Moshi Monsters have not captured childhood minds – or pocket-money – in quite the same way.

But there could also be more serious geopolitical consequences. If Japan ever did find itself in military conflict with China, perhaps over the disputed Senkaku Islands, then it seems likely the vast majority of Western public opinion would be on its side, for many reasons: Japan’s status as a functioning democracy, for instance, or its largely blameless modern-day adherence to international laws and norms of conduct.

But another factor would surely be the fact that huge numbers of people across the world, particularly those under 40, simply really like Japan – a direct consequence of its pop culture soft power influence, of which the Super Mario games are a leading component, together with anime, manga, fashion and J-Pop. If Western public outrage over Ukraine being attacked was huge, it would be as nothing compared to the response if Japan were ever bombed by China or North Korea.

Soft power has its limits and some have criticised the entire concept as overblown. But if it helps bring in the yen by the barrel-load, then this can also help Tokyo enhance its actual hard power resources too. Japan recently announced plans to double its defence budget in the face of growing regional threats. Massive foreign sales of Mario and Pokémon will help Tokyo pay for that.

In the end, perhaps the true magical realm of which Super Mario ends up being the saviour will be not the Mushroom Kingdom, but Japan itself?

Are Super Mario Bros and Pokemon taking over your world? Your children’s world? Your grandchildren’s world. Tell us in the comments box below.

Steven Tucker is a UK-based writer with over ten books to his name. His next, Hitler’s & Stalin’s Misuse of Science, comparing the woke pseudoscience of today to the totalitarian pseudoscience of the past, will be published in summer 2023.

Image credit: Nintento website   


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