Every business has a starting point. For Japanese arcades, one of them was on department store rooftops.
Yes, Japanese arcades have their roots in the carnival type games often seen at local religious festivals. But way before coffee houses installed tabletop cabinets to capitalize on the late 70s Space Invaders craze, there were game machines atop department stores in cities like Osaka and Tokyo.
Case in point: Namco, which still operates a large number of arcades in Japan. The company got its start making attractions, rides, and games for department store roofs. In 1955, when Namco was still Nakamura Manufacturing, the nascent company built two wooden horses for a Yokohama department store. This was not the first of its kind. The maiden rooftop amusement area opened on a Tokyo department store in 1903, with wooden horses, a seesaw and an indoor play area.
By the time Nakamura Manufacturing entered the scene in the mid-1950s, this was a well established tradition in Japan, with a history of buildings covered with ropeways, Ferris Wheels and other attractions. No wonder they’re known as okujou yuuenchi (屋上遊園地), literally “rooftop amusement park.”
But with cities rebuilding after World War II, these rooftop play areas offered new business opportunities.
In the early 1960s, Nakamura Manufacturing constructed a kiddy attraction called “Roadway Ride” on top of Mitsukoshi Department Store with children “driving” small cars on a railroad type track.
Not everything was a ride, as there were also coin operated and carnival type games. Other companies, like Sega, also made mechanical games that were enjoyed on these rooftops.
Website Tetsugaku News recently published a series of old photos of Japanese department store roofs, showing the different attractions.
Via website Nippon Sumizumi Kanko, here are some of the retro games found on the rooftop play area of Nagasaki’s Hamaya Department Store.
Around this same time, there were also bowling alleys with mechanical games, but everything radically changed with Space Invaders. Dedicated establishments, called “inbeedaa hausu” (“invader house”), starting popping up across the country, evolving into the Japanese gaming arcades of today.
When I came to Japan in 2001, rooftop arcades were still fairly common. But these days, with more and more of them are being shuttered instead of getting needed updates and repairs.
For example, the previously mentioned Hamaya Department Store’s rooftop amusement park is no more, and after 56 years in operation, the okujou yuuenchi on Hanshin Department Store in Osaka was shut down, as documented by Man-san’s Photo Gallery. These are just two of many, and it’s increasingly rare for department stores to have them. Sadly, the age of rooftop amusement parks is drawing to a close.
But many modern Japanese arcades still have this rooftop amusement park DNA, offering small rides for children. Some, like Joypolis, are modern throwbacks to the okujou yuuenchi of yore.
The only thing that is missing is the rooftop setting.
This article was originally posted on April 6, 2017.