Playing Cards: Japan

Hanafunda Rain Card

Quoting Stewart Culin, the noted game ethnographer writting in 1895:

"Playing-cards are known in Japan as karuta, a word derived for the Portuguese carta. They also receive the name of fuda... or bakuchi no fuda, that is, "gambling cards". There are several kinds in general use, of which the commonest, which are used for gambling, are called Hana-garuta, or "Flower cards ", and the game which is played with them, Hana-awase, or "Flower matching". Hana-garuta are made of cardboard, and are usually about one and three-quarters by one and one-eighth inches. The backs are black and the faces bear pictures in colors. A pack contains fourty-eight cards divided into twelve sets, or suits, of four cards each. The suit-marks are flowers and other emblems appropriate to the twelve months of the year. The cards in each suit vary in value from one to twenty points, called ten... One or two cards in each suit bear only the emblem of the suit and count one point. With two exceptions there is one card in each suit that has in addition the picture of a Tanzaku, "a kind of paper or thin wood used for writing verses on". These count five. The other cards bear other emblems in addition to that of the suit, and count 10 and 20."

The graphic above is one card from a Hanafunda deck in the collection. The deck was acquired in 1972, yet the cards at the time Culin was writing and those of our time are not that different. Culin continues his writing with a description of each card in a Hanafunda deck and a number of variations of how the game is played. (Stuart Culin, Korean Games, with Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1895; Reprinted as Games Of The Orient, Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1958, pages 128-133.)

Origns of Japanese Playing Cards

Handafunda deer card

The Japanese indicate that their culture began about 1000 BC, but they did not start a written history until the 5th century AD. Some records indicate that Chinese and Korean cultural influenced Japan as early as the 7th century AD and the origins of certain Japanese games can be traced to these influences. One such game, based upon chance events, was a matching game. The Japanese adaptation of this game made use of hand painted pictures of natural objects on seashells. The 12th through the mid-19th century is known as Japan's feudal period or the time of the Shoguns. During this time there were almost no foriegn influences on Japanese culture, that is until Jesuits arrived in 1543 AD and were permitted to remain in Japan. Then Portugese traders arrived by 1597 and introduced a number of European concepts. One of these concepts was the deck of playing cards. In time, the Japanese adapted the concept of playing cards, but instead of making use of European symbols and numbers, they modified the "seashell matching game", creating playing cards with handpainted natural scenes of flowers, birds, and the like.

According to the book Hanafunda: The Flowercard Game, Japan Publications, Inc. 1970, the concept of playing cards was introduced into Japan in the 16th century AD - about the time the Portugese traders arrived.

hanafunda deck 2

Hanafunda Deck

The Hanafunda deck (partially pictured) includes 48 cards of 12 suits, with 4 cards to a suit. Each suit represents one of the months of the year, and each card within a suit represents a season of the year. The pictures are stylized flora and fauna appropriate to Japan thoughout each season of the year. The cards are smaller than western decks in that they are about 5.3cm long x 3.3cm wide (about 2 1/8 inches high by 1 1/4 inches wide). Backs have no designs and are of one color - either black or reddish-brown. Sometimes an extra card is added to a deck to be used to replace a damaged card, or as a special function card in certain Hanafunda games. An examples of these special cards can be seen in the photograph to the right - it's the red face mask on the lower left!

Wooden Hanafunda box

Hanafunda cards are somewhat more rigid than western cards in that they are made of a stiff cardboard that has been lacquered.

Sometimes Hanafund cards are packed in wooden boxes as may be seen in the photograph to the left. The deck in the photograph above is the deck that came in the box pictured on the left. It was acquired for the collection in 1972.

Paper Hanafunda container

As may be seen in the photograph to the right, the deck may also come wrapped in a printed paper covering with brightly colored pictures and Japanese script. The deck in the photograph to the right was acquired in 1978.

How The Game Is Played

There are a number of variations of the game of Hanafunda, but it is usually a game for two or four adults. It is played somewhat like the western game of "rummy". In some Hanafunda games each of the four cards in a suit are assigned point values - 1, 5, 10, or 20. The intent is still to "match" cards - that is to make pairs or "runs". Strategy is based upon accumulating a maximum number of points. The maximum that can be accumulated is 88 points, thus the game is sometimes refered to as "88". Other variations of the game have additional names in Japanese, such as "Koikoi", "Mushi", "Kabu". An older book, published in English, which includes detailed instructions about these games is: Gimmie88: The Popular Card Game, Japan: Katagiri, 1929.

The game of Hanafunda was introduced into Korea by the Japanese and modified somewhat by the Koreans. Please compare the Korean version of this playing card game. The Korean page in the Playing Card section documents and illustrates each of cards in the Hanafunda deck, and may be accessed via the left menu.

Poet Card

Game Of 100 Poets

In addition to the game of Hanafunda, Culin describes and documents a number of other card games in Japan. A copy of one of these is in the collection and is called the "Game of 100 Poets". The following is Culin's description of this game (page 134):

...The Uta-garuta or "Poem cards"... the game being called ... Uta-awase, or "Poem-matching". They contain... either the well-known one hundred poems, Hyaku Nin Isshu, or poems of the "Ancient and Modern Collection", Ko Kon Shu. The picture cards bear a picture of the poet with the firt two lines of the poems. The remaining lines are on the corresponding cards, one hundred of each kind...

Poet Card Box

Seen from the phtograph on the card above, there is a painting of a poet and a partial verse. The "Poem" cards were acquired by the in the 1970s from an importer in Toronto. Though the size of the "Poem" cards are the same size as the cards in a Hanafunda deck, the pictures are all quite different than the ones on a Hanafunda deck. The photograph on the right is the double sized box for the one hundred cards.

Game of Proverbs

Poem card

Culin writes that there is still another card game in Japan known as Iroha-garuta, or "Syllabary cards" or "Proverb cards". This game uses a fourty-eight card deck, half of which bear a picture and one of the characters of the Iroha, or Japanese syllabary. Each of the other cards is inscribed with a proverb, the first word of which begins with the characters of the syllabary. He informs us that there are several methods of play, "...the commonest being that of laying out all the picture-cards face up. A third person reads the proverbs to the players, who endeavor to select the cards with the corresponding initial from the table".

The photograph on the left illustrates a card with a proverb.

In a footnote (page 134) Culin describes how this game is played. He indicates that play of the "Proverb Game" and the "100 Poets" are similar.

Two or four persons usually play, although any number may take part. When two play, each takes fifty cards with the last lines at random, when he arranges, face up, before him. Each endeavors to touch first the corresponding cards, when the proverbs or poems are read, and when a player first touches one his oppent's side, he gives him three of his cards. The one who first disposes of all his cards wins the game.

NOTE: This page was originally created and posted on the Web on March 12, 1995. Subsequently it has been modified and periodically updated. Last update: June 13, 2010