Pens, Paper and Pretzels

Flower Power


It’s certainly not a well-kept secret that Nintendo began life well over 100 years ago as a playing card manufacturer, but as with all aspects of Japanese culture, the basic truth is far removed from the intricate, tightly woven facts. From Godzilla, solitaire mahjong, snap and bingo to the magical merchandising world of Pokémon, you may know more about Japanese playing cards than you realize.

Latin Japan
For an aspect of Japanese leisure so deeply ingrained in the country’s long and rich culture, it seems somehow surprising that the word karuta – the generic Japanese term for playing cards – actually comes from the Portuguese word carta (meaning exactly the same thing). This is a direct descendent of the Latin word for paper, although its Indo-European inflection leans toward a closer translation of “card,” “map” or “chart.” So although it’d require something of a skyward view, it wouldn’t take Johnny Cochrane to argue that Nintendo’s history began almost 1,000 years ago … in Europe!

Tenuous timescales aside, by investigating the history, use and contemporary application of karuta, we can see it wasn’t quite such a random transition the game giant made when moving from playing cards to videogames.

In the mid-16th century when Portuguese explorers brought the famous (or infamous, depending on your ecclesiastical temperament) founder of the Jesuit order, Francis Xavier, to convert the heathen Japanese, they also brought with them several packs of Spanish, 40-card decks for playing the popular gambling game hombre (better known these days as tresillo). Although Christianity found some meager purchase among the Japanese, and a minor portion of the population were converted, Spanish playing cards found unprecedented success and spread like wildfire through all social classes of the Far East.

When the Tokugawa Shogunate shut down Japan’s borders at the beginning of the 17th century, it also made a sincere attempt to aggressively purge all forms of gambling; including (and especially) card games . While it must have been a constant irritation (not to mention danger) for gambling houses to continually dodge the government’s legal swords by repeatedly reinventing the decks and their games, it also led to a wealth of exploration into the world of competitive card playing, manufacture and design.

By the late 1700s, the new Kensei administration (which, rather appropriately, means “Tolerant Government”) finally acknowledged the populace was going to play card games regardless of how many times they were officially banned, designing a game deliberately intended to make gambling difficult, while still providing an engrossing, addictive and easily popularized experience. The result, was hanafuda; the flower cards. Needless to say, gamblers soon put them to nefarious use, but before we discuss how to lose money and influence people, let’s take a look at how the game is actually played.


Hanafuda Fun
Although the intention was to develop a game inherently hostile to gambling requirements, once a flowing and strategic hanafuda tournament reaches its hectic crescendo, it becomes little wonder that betting on the outcome could be so readily and energetically achieved.

A hanafuda deck is sufficiently different in both design and principle to make it appear somewhat alien to Western eyes, despite some distinct, if hidden similarities. The cards themselves are smaller but thicker than their Western counterparts; granting a wonderfully satisfying “smack” when enthusiastically dealt, but requiring an entirely different set of dexterous skills for the seasoned card shark to handle them with any grandeur. Shuffling by way of lithe wrist action and flexing the cards to their elastic limit is not an option, demanding the dealer adopt more of a fluid, tabletop based cutting action to properly randomize the deck.

The deck itself consists of 48 cards split into 12 sets of four, each set representing a month of the year. As part of the game’s gambling aversion, no numbers were included on the faces, with artwork and text left to define their status instead. The artwork, while varying greatly depending on the artist, represents the month in a manner of cryptic and environmental fashions most closely related to Japanese impressions of the particular time of year (a matter which can be initially confusing to foreign players).


But this hasn’t stopped hanafuda games finding popularity in countries outside Japan, having become something of an institution in Korea (where it’s known as Godori, and has seen such popularity as to spawn the proverb “If three people gather, they’re bound to play Godori“) and Hawaii, where it’s customary to play at the beach. Despite the deck’s widespread use, the most prevalent of the hanafuda variations across the world is without doubt a game called koi-koi; commonly translated as Go-Stop.

Requiring two players at a time, the pair faces each other with the card table between them. The dealer shuffles the deck, then deals his opponent four cards. He then deals four cards face up in the center of the table, followed by four cards for himself. This is then repeated so each player has eight cards and there are eight cards in the center of the table. The remaining deck is placed to the side in a neat pile, with great pomp and circumstance (as dictated by the centuries-old Samurai culture).

The purpose is to match complete, four-card suits by compiling the sets as they’re laid out in the center of the table. In essence, this would make koi-koi a game entirely subject to chance and careful observation, but by assigning a specific (and non-linear) point system to the deck, a strategy not unlike that of chess or, perhaps more accurately, poker comes into play. Each card has a point allocation of 1, 2, 10 or 20, though it doesn’t automatically follow that each suit (or the month it represents) will have an equal number of overall points. November, for example, has the highest scoring cards of the deck, since it consists of a 20-point card, a 10-point, a 2 and a 1.

Every turn, each player must place a card from his hand in the center; regardless as to whether he can match it to one of the others. But this isn’t simply a case of matching cards quick and fast – it requires careful consideration of the known cards in play so as not to put down a hand with the potential to benefit the opponent. Even if a matched pair could be achieved, it’s not always strategically beneficial to make the match right away.

The player also takes a card from the top of the spare pile and places it face up on the table. If any of the cards placed in the center during a turn match cards already present, the new card is positioned on top of its match until it makes a full set, at which point the player who completed the suit takes all four cards. It’s then customary to arrange won cards in point order to help with calculating combination and overall scores.

At the end of each turn, the player decides whether to close the hand or continue another round (weighing up how many points he’s scored so far against any possible scores he may attain should play continue) by clearly saying koi-koi (literally: go on) or mate (stop). Continuing can mean far greater scores, as combinations of cards can double and triple an overall point count, though it could also mean the opposition steals the game at the last moment. Since only the winner’s points are counted, risking a koi-koi can mean losing everything.

Godzilla vs. Pikachu
People traditionally play cards on New Year’s Day in Japan, though the day generally calls for a more dynamic game using karuta. The cultural significance of these cards also reaches deep into Asian culture, as the Japanese penchant for categorization led game designers and scholars alike to create a variety of decks adorned with all manner of agricultural, mythical, cultural and zoological entities to be represented in themed decks over the centuries; tightly classified to enable a proper scoring system.

In recent years, this trend has seen a monumental resurgence in popularity through not only the storytelling media exploiting karuta‘s compartmentalized versions of history (such as the Godzilla franchise), but in trading cards and videogames, which draw upon the comparative scoring nature established by the card-playing fraternity centuries ago. Most popular among the karuta re-imaginings of recent years is the second-most valuable videogame property ever conceived: Pokémon.

Traditional Iroha Karuta, however, used two different decks of small playing cards (rather than serial linked Game Boys); yomifuda, reading cards, and torifuda, grabbing cards. Poems are written on the cards and divided between the two decks, forming matching pairs that make a full verse when the two cards are brought together.

Generally, there’ll be a gathering of people, friends and families in their Sunday best, knelt in pairs about a tatami matted floor with their reading cards split between them and laid out in front. The torifuda are spread face up between the pair, ready for the speaker (sat in a position of revered authority at the head of the room) to begin reciting one of the 100 famous love poems from Japanese history written on the cards.


Some of these poems are unique, so the first syllable is more than enough for a seasoned exponent to identify the torifuda card, while other verses can only be identified by the very last line. A well practiced speaker can make a wonderful meal of delivering his sonnet in a perfect, flowing Japanese iambic pentameter equivalent, bringing the excited apprehension of the entire room to a tense zenith before a flurry of super-fast hands snatch at cards like a Samurai drawing his sword in a duel.

Karuta is particularly well thought of for its educational and social properties every bit as much as it’s sporting gameplay, however. Players are required to learn not only the ancient poems written on the cards, but also ensure their proficiency in reading hiragana (one of the traditional written Japanese forms) and even, in the case of the most expensive or antique decks, Chinese characters.

This game technically outdates hanafuda, having been played by Japanese nobility long before the Portuguese first landed, using elaborately painted sea shells rather than cards. This made the game considerably less accessible and less practical. The real popularity of the game wasn’t realized until it was successfully crossbred with infinitely versatile playing cards.

Nintendo Karuta
In 1885, Japan finally lifted its ban on the many different styles of playing cards and the gambling games they were suited to, prompting aspiring businessman Fusajiro Yamauchi to set up business in Kyoto manufacturing handmade hanafuda from the bark of mulberry trees. His new company, Nintendo Koppai, met with considerable success, particularly when gambling joints (more often than not run by Yakuza) began using them in high stakes games.

This saw Nintendo rapidly become the largest playing card manufacturer in Japan, and the first to domestically produce the Western decks we know today. Along with regularly commissioned new artwork for hanafuda decks (celebrating all kinds of occasions, ceremonies and holidays) and an early deal with Disney to produce licensed playing cards featuring the animation giant’s characters, the playing card business has kept Nintendo (which was even renamed Nintendo Karuta at one point) in champagne and caviar for over a century; only recently replacing its primary business with videogames rather than card games. To this day, Nintendo of Japan still produces a well-respected and highly sought-after line of traditional playing cards.

This abundant, rich history of card games still provides our global entertainment industry with a wealth of both direct and inspirational material, and without doubt many of the leading videogame developers who’ve shaped our playing habits over the last three decades would never have considered amusing us so profusely if it weren’t for the long and celebrated card-playing culture of Japan.

About the author