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Iwata-san: Learning about Life and Leadership in Japanese

One of the things I love about interviewing experts and business leaders is the opportunity to learn while I work. I get to hear their experiences, process their wisdom, and share it with anyone willing to read the final product.

While I was working on a recent project, a Japanese startup founder recommended a book called Iwata-san. This book, a collection of essays and interviews, is a tribute to former Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata, who tragically passed away in 2015. As someone fascinated by the intersection of business and video games, this seemed like the perfect book for me. There was just one caveat: the book was (and still is) only available in Japanese.

At first, this was discouraging, as I assumed that a book centered on business and technology would be beyond my ability to read without having to constantly refer to a Japanese-English dictionary. Fortunately, a little research revealed that the publisher has released the first three chapters of the book online for free. So, I had no choice but to follow my interview subject’s advice and give the book a try. Surprisingly, I discovered that Iwata-san is a perfect fit for my Japanese reading level. It’s not intimidatingly difficult, but it’s not too easy either—perfect for achieving a state of flow.

Although I’m still working my way through the book, I’ve read enough to recommend it to others who are looking for fascinating Japanese-language content that checks all of the right boxes (language study, video games, programming, and leadership advice).

So far, I’ve learned how obsessive curiosity in our childhood can set us on the path to achieving great things. Iwata traces his career all the way back to his childhood when he managed to get a hold of an HP-65, the world’s first programmable calculator, on which he immediately started programming games.

When it comes to our careers, Iwata-san is a reminder to keep an open mind and constantly be receptive to new opportunities—even if we aren’t sure if we are ready for them. At the young age of 32, Iwata was appointed president of HAL Laboratory while the company was in the midst of a financial crisis. Despite his lack of management experience, Iwata managed to turn the company around within six years.

I have yet to reach the parts of the book that feature interviews with industry luminaries such as Shigeru Miyamoto. However, considering how much I’ve learned so far, it’s only a matter of time until I do. If you have an upper-intermediate-level grasp on Japanese, you too have nothing to lose by sampling the first three, free chapters of Iwata-san. If you’d like to learn about Iwata’s life, career, and impact on the video game industry without having to learn Japanese, I have good news. The publisher is planning to release an English version in spring 2021.

Photo credit: Official GDC via Flickr

Originally from California, I've been living and working in Japan, now my second home, since 2009. My work as a communications consultant lends a unique perspective to my writing, and I often explore the business behind Japan’s beauty. When I’m not working, you can find me hunched over a screen reviewing kanji flashcards in my never-ending quest to master the Japanese language.