The wildly famous Super Mario Bros. series is recognizable to dozens of cultures by its 1-Up Mushrooms, Goombas, and short Italian plumber. Another famous symbol synonymous with Super Mario is the green Warp Pipe that facilitate instantaneous travel between regions; but its history goes back quite a ways — long before video games were even invented! And it’s actually pretty fascinating.
We know them as Warp Pipes, but in Japanese they’re called 土管 (dokan), and they aren’t a Nintendo invention at all.
Dokan and the Economic Miracle
Real Dokan are pipes made of ceramic or concrete used in plumbing systems, and were introduced as early as the Meiji era (1868-1912). How did Dokan trickle down through history and into video games to become the Warp Pipes we know today? It’s actually a long story:
In the decades following World War II, Japan experienced a surge of economic growth known as the Japanese post-war economic miracle, wherein there was expanded government investment in Japanese infrastructure, including modernizing the country’s sewage systems.
Because of the superabundance of construction projects that ensued, Dokan were often stacked and left on vacant lots as a means of storage until they could be used. In the absence of parks and playgrounds, children would play on these vacant lots — and by extension, on the Dokan.
Using Dokan like playground equipment was hardly safe, and sometimes resulted in children being crushed under a pipe that had rolled. But despite the dangers, since kids played on vacant lots, and there were Dokan on vacant lots, the kids played on Dokan.
As it turns out, this pastime has left quite a legacy in Japan.
Dokan replicas in playgrounds…
…tiny Dokan for shrimp aquariums…
and plenty of references in the media:
The prevalence has apparently effected the Japanese psyche as well. I found this image on a blog post where the writer confessed to feeling an involuntary urge to crawl inside:
Of course, once the infrastructure was sufficiently modernized, construction promptly slowed and the sight of Dokan on vacant lots — and children playing on them — became more and more scarce. So what has kept the idea of playing with Dokan alive for the last 50 years?
Perhaps what has truly cemented the legacy of Dokan in the Japanese mind has less to do with children who used to play on the extra building materials once upon a time, and a lot more to do with that with which Dokan has become nearly synonymous: Doraemon.
Dokan and Doraemon
In brief: Doraemon (ドラえもん) is a manga series by Fujiko Fujio about a robotic cat from the 22nd century who travels back in time to help a young boy named Nobita. It ran from 1969-1996 and is one of the best selling manga in the world, having sold over 100 million copies. The story has since been adapted to anime for television and film, video games, and a musical, and in March 2008 Japan’s Foreign Ministry appointed Doraemon as the nation’s first “anime ambassador.”
So, Doraemon is sort of a big deal.
What does Doraemon have to do with Dokan? The children of the Doraemon manga always met at a particular vacant lot, complete with Dokan, to play, and it became a recurrent — and now, iconic — backdrop for their stories, immediately recognizable to those who grew up with the series. They even have a replica of the famous Dokan at the Fujiko F. Fujio Museum (yep, he has his own museum. Like I said, Doraemon is a big deal).
The vacant lot where they play also has Dokan laid upright, which is the more familiar version of the Warp Pipes we know and love:
Here’s an episode of Doraemon, with English subs, that starts out in that vacant lot:
Ok, so we’ve covered what Dokan are, why kids started playing on them in postwar Japan, and how their inclusion in the Doraemon manga cemented their legacy long after they disappeared, but how did Dokan become the famed Warp Pipes we know today?
I Saw A Pipe On The Way Home From The Office
Fortunately for us, the creation of Warp Pipes was actually a topic covered in an installment of the Iwata Asks series! In their conversation, Miyamoto and Iwata alluded to some of what we touched on here, and with the added context, it should make more sense:
Iwata: How did you come up with the idea of having pipes in the first place?
Miyamoto: It comes from manga.
Miyamoto: If you read old comic books, there will always be waste ground* with pipes lying around.
Iwata: You’re right! (laughs)
Miyamoto: So the idea that you could get inside pipes* when you see them was one that seemed very natural to me. […] Then, on the way home from the office, I spied a concrete wall in a residential area which had a number of drainage pipes coming out of it. I thought: “I can use those!” (laughs) It’s well established that something will emerge from a pipe and then go back into it.
*I’m not sure why they translated 空き地 as “waste ground.” It’s definitely “vacant lot.” In a similar vein, the expression in the English translation “you could get inside the pipes” really carries more the connotation of, “you feel the urge to get inside when you see one.” (As did the writer of the blog post I mentioned earlier.) Here’s the Japanese version of the interview for reference.
Anyway, the inclusion of Dokan in classic manga had an impact on Mario! Cool! And apparently, the subsequent “naturalness” of going inside one (for a Japanese person who grew up with the manga, anyway), also influenced the decision. But why are they green? I’m glad you asked:
Iwata: So that’s how you made it so the Koopa Troopas that come out of the pipe at the top will go back into the pipe at the bottom. Just out of interest, why did you decide to make the pipes green?
Miyamoto: What’s that?
Iwata: Well, pipes would normally be grey. I don’t believe you’ll often find green pipes.
Miyamoto: Well, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that one! (laughs) I don’t really remember the reason why we made them green, but there weren’t that many colors you could use in video games back then.
Iwata: Yes, it was very limited at that time.
Miyamoto: Of those colors, blue was very bright and beautiful. Green was also very nice when you used two different tones. Those were the things we considered when designing the look of the game.
So, aesthetic reasons, basically.
Coincidentally, one might think that because Mario is a plumber, the pipes would’ve naturally evolved from that, but it turns out the inspiration was the other way around, according to this interview conducted with Miyamoto by NPR:
Miyamoto: The plumber role of Mario is actually a different story. In Donkey Kong, Mario was actually a carpenter, and he was working on a building, and then the next game we made after that was a game called Mario Bros., and that was a game that was set in the sewers, and the pipes were green, and there were turtles coming out of the pipes. And so we thought, in this game, it would make sense that Mario would be a plumber because of all the pipes. And so that’s where the plumber came from.
And that’s a warp! I-I mean a wrap! (^_^)
The humble Dokan has come a long way from the early days of sitting leftover in vacant lots. It’s all thanks to the children who used to play on them, the manga artists who preserved their memory for a younger generation, and the video game creators who were inspired to incorporate them in their work.
Thanks for reading.
Many thanks to this fantastic article, which did most of the heavy lifting for me!