The Triforce. It’s an iconic symbol in gaming. And as Kotaku previously pointed out, the original design is part of Japanese culture. It’s also on the grave of a legendary Nintendo designer. Here’s why.
Few of us will impact the world like Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi did during his life. Whether that was creating the Game Boy or producing a wide variety of Nintendo hits, Yokoi’s legacy can still be felt today.
Zelda fans have long wondered what inspired the Triforce. The most common answer is that it’s the family crest for the powerful Hojo clan. But more on that later.
Twitter user Manchanbuhibuhi recently uploaded photos of Yokoi’s tombstone, which is located in Kyoto and which lists some of the Nintendo legend’s many creations. This might not be his most famous (or infamous) works, but no doubt, these were the ones that made him most proud.
The tombstone reads:
1968 - Ultra Machine
1973 - Laser Clay
1980 - Ten Billion Barrel
1980 - Game & Watch
1989 - Game Boy
Below that, there appear to be Game & Watch characters etched into the tombstone.
In Japan, family members typically share final resting places. Urns with their cremated remains are put to rest in the same grave. Behind Yokoi’s tombstone in his family grave, you can see a kamon (家紋) or “family crest” that gamers know as the Triforce. (We know this is the same grave because they are marked off in the same gravel square.) In Japanese, the actual crest is called the “mitsuuroko” (三つ鱗) or “three scales.” That’s “scale” as in fish scale.
Today, most Japanese people don’t use their crests on a regular basis. Some people might not even know their family’s crest. You do see them on graves and on kimono. Of course, businesses use these marks as corporate logos.
Originally, only the upper classes had crests. They were the Japanese equivalent of a coat of arms. Regular farmers, the vast majority of Japanese people, did not—they didn’t even have last names. But as the merchant class became stronger during the 17th and 18th centuries, you started seeing more and more non-samurai with family crests, with rich merchants marrying into poor samurai families or even buying the seals from samurai that had hit on hard times.
By the early 19th century, some people were creating their own heraldry, which pundits of the day criticised. Famous kabuki actors, who might come from well-to-do families with kamon, made entirely new crests that matched their stage personas. Even popular courtesans had their own kamon. Historically, there is fluidity with these crests. This is important to understand.
Since this is Yokoi’s family grave, yes, the logical conclusion would be that his family crest is the mitsuuroko. But the crest originated with the Hojo clan, right? And Yokoi’s last name is...Yokoi, correct? As Twitter user Joinus1982 pointed out (via Togech), the theory is that the Yokoi family is a branch of the Hojo clan, a family with a long history in Kyoto. The History of Nintendo author Florent Gorges says there’s no connection between the Hojos and the Yokois, but with the murky history and spread of crests in Japan, it’s hard to be so sure.
But the answer is simpler than that. Here, you can see a list of families all across Japan that have used it that are not named Hojo. There are many different last names, including the Yokois. (You can see a photo of the famous scholar Shonan Yokoi, who may or may not be a direct relative, wearing the crest here.) Anime fans might notice that even the character The Kurokawas (黒川家) in the Studio Ghibli anime Kaze Tachinu use the mark as their family seal. So, yes, the crest is fairly common. And while there are literally a couple thousand different kamon, many families would use famous crests.
Everyone working on The Legend of Zelda would have known the Hojo clan and this crest. The family had a tremendous impact on the imperial court in Kyoto—and Japanese history. But not everyone would have known it was the Yokoi family crest because not every family named Yokoi uses it. What’s more, there were probably few opportunities for Gunpei Yokoi to display it at work. As mentioned previously, kamon are not shown on a regular basis (there are exceptions, such as kamon being displayed on houses in the countryside).
Zelda was created by Yokoi’s protégé Shigeru Miyamoto. However, as The History of Nintendo author Florent Gorges points out, is that the seal is so common that Miyamoto could not have ignored it, and the crest was probably refashioned into a game element because of its design. It’s less likely that the Triforce is a nod to Yokoi—though, that is possible. While Miyamoto has yet to recount the internal reaction to the Triforce’s design, Gorges believes that it’s likely that Yokoi pointed out that the Triforce looked like his family’s seal after the fact and not the other way around. Though, again, it is possible the chicken came before the egg or whatever.
While the Triforce does share design elements with the mitsuuroko, that is exactly what they are: elements. Whatever the source, the Triforce has come to mean something else entirely to generation after generation. The biggest impact of all is that today, when many younger Japanese see the crest, they don’t immediately say “mitsuuroko”, but トライフォース or “Toraifoosu.” That’s right, “Triforce.”