For anyone grabbing lunch in Japan, themed temptation beckons from the refrigerators of Lawson convenience stores: branded Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom hearty salmon and fresh milk clam chowder.
For those that do not yet own the latest $70 Zelda game — declared by some to be the greatest of all time and a breezy seller of 10mn copies in its first three days — a $3.26 bowl of hero-labelled soup that (sort of) appears in the game is a cheap entry point for some precious Nintendo magic.
Lurking in its recipe, though, are hints of an important shift in the way Japanese companies may start to think about talent, its value and its portability.
Cross-marketing a new game with food is not unprecedented and Zelda chowder, of course, bubbles somewhere near the bottom of Nintendo’s efforts to leverage its intellectual property beyond the games in which Mario, Link (hero of the Zelda series), Donkey Kong and others created that gargantuan brand equity. But it now forms part of a discernibly vaster project. Within the past few months, the Super Nintendo World attraction has opened at Universal Studios Hollywood, following the one that opened two years ago in Osaka, as construction on a third hums away in Singapore.
In April, The Super Mario Bros. Movie premiered in the US. It has since taken more than $1.2bn at the global box office, dwarfing the performance of every other cinema offering this year. Nintendo has been saying for some years that it wanted its IP to work harder and there is, very clearly, a lot more of this still to come.
When asked about that in a recent interview, Shigeru Miyamoto, the 70-year-old genius behind the most worshipped idols in the Nintendo pantheon, said: “Nintendo is like a talent agent. We have a lot more entertainers in store . . . we have various options [for using them].”
Miyamoto is no stranger to the mid-interview bon mot — see “a delayed game is eventually good, a rushed game is forever bad”. But this sounded like the signal of something more psychologically substantial: an admission that Nintendo is in showbiz, and playing by showbiz rules. A company that had once primarily contemplated the value of its IP in terms of the product it could shift is now judging that same IP’s independent worth (and its responsibility to maximise it) in the context of a massive, multi-faceted global entertainment industry.
This change of perspective is not unique to Nintendo. A rather less abstract version is taking place elsewhere in corporate Japan and with people rather than pixels. The historically frigid Japanese job market has been thawed by a shortage of human capital, diminishing expectations of a job for life and the actively growing appeal (for some) of a career that progresses via multiple companies.
In a recent article, which cited data from government and academic sources, the economist Jesper Koll identified “unprecedented quit-rates” by young elite Japanese bureaucrats who would once have expected to see out their whole careers working for the government. The number of those resigning in their 20s has risen more than three-fold since 2014/15, while those quitting in their 30s have more than doubled in the same period.
These are early-ish days, but people are moving more fluidly between companies mid-career. And as the competition to secure them intensifies, more transparently measurable value is being affixed to talent, experience and the portability of both.
This process, and the realisation that a company’s capacity to do business must be contextualised in a big, external job market, requires a significant mental leap for a lot of Japanese companies. Many are used to the idea that they will meet almost all their needs by hiring university graduates en masse, and retaining them through a combination of habit and loyalty.
But that appears to be nearing an end. Senior Nomura executives recently revealed to the FT that last year, and for the first time in the company’s history, it had made more mid-career hires in Japan than it had taken on university graduates. Other brokerage houses, they said after asking around, were fast approaching the same inflection point. In certain sectors, such as IT, the crossover is long past. If, as seems increasingly likely, this pattern becomes prevalent across corporate Japan, the mental shift — from acquiring a wholesale consignment of ore to buying a finished commodity in a market — will be historic. Everyone, in effect, will become a talent agent.