Nihon Zatsuroku
An Online Japanese Miscellany

= Cards =

by Anthony J. Bryant


     Playing cards are called “karuta” in Japanese, the word being an importation of the Portuguese word, “carta.” It is not surprising, then, to find that the first cards appeared in Japan after the Portuguese arrived. Until the Japanese encountered playing cards, all their games were either board games like shôgi, go, or sugoroku, or matching games played with shells and the like. It seems not to have occurred to them to make such things of paper, as such pastimes were primarily the purview of the leisure-classes, who had the time and money to have full sets of shells for matching, etc. The introduction of the cards, however, allowed them to be mass-produced, and after a few decades their popularity spread to other classes.

     The first recorded production of cards was in north Kyûshû in Miike c. 1575. This was the Tenshô era, so these cards came to be called “Tenshô karuta.” The cards were printed in full color, and were based on Portuguese models, and so had four suits, each of three face cards and ace to nine, for a total of forty-eight cards. They immediately became popular with bushi and high ranking persons who encountered them, and could learn card games from the European traders and officials. A reproduction of a set of Tenshô karuta is depicted here.

     It isn't clear what games exactly were being played. Texts referring to karuta playing during the period are little more helpful than someone today saying “playing cards.” This does not clarify whether it is gin, poker, bridge, or even old maid. It is probable that whatever games were popular in Europe at the time were the ones first played in Japan.

     The first written reference to playing cards appeared in 1597, and in a few years proscriptions were already being issued forbidding gaming.

     With the popularity of these paper cards, more card-based games came to be produced, including the popular Hyakunin Isshû (One hundred poems from one hundred poets), a form of matching game with the first half of a poem written on one card, and an illustration and the finishing half written on another card. It's not exactly clear when the first Hyakunin Isshû sets were produced, but they became incredibly popular. These poems were ancient, and all of the aristocracy knew them, or should have. The illustrated cards were laid out, and one person, the caller, would take the other 100 and at random read aloud the opening strophe of a poem. The players would try to find and pluck out the corresponding card. The winner was the one who had the most cards at the end. This game is still played today, but it is considered a New Year's game, and viewers of Japanese television are regularly treated to scenes of erudite (they need to be) young Japanese women in kimono kneeling on the floor and batting away cards.

    Many people are familiar with hana-fuda ( –flower cards) and other Japanese card games such as I-Ro-Ha karuta (= A-B-C cards), but unfortunately, most card games as they are played today, including these two, are hopelessly modern, having developed during the Edo period. The true Japanese card games, utilizing original Japanese cards, came decades after the introduction of cards by the Portuguese.


Playing karuta games in the SCA

     There's no reason that you can't play historical European card games using Period-style cards. If you want to reproduce an Tenshô karuta set, just use a heavy-weight paper (say, 100-pound stock) and either print out the large graphic here or this one here, or based on the images, draw and paint or print your own.

    Hyakunin Isshû sets are a dime a dozen, including both very modern and classically traditional sets. As few people in the SCA speak Japanese (let alone know any of these poems), it is pointless to even make suggestions for a deck; however, enterprising gamesters could easily do one as illustrated flash cards for Japanese scenes and objects, mon of famous noble houses, or something along those lines.


Online resources

     Miike Karuta Card and Material History Museum. This is a museum dedicated to cards, but unfortunately, most of the information is in Japanese.



  This page was last modified on: 12/15/2014

This page and all contents copyright ©2014 by Sengoku Daimyo, LLC and the authors.
Copying or transmission in all or part without express written permission is forbidden.