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Enjoy Japanese Culture! How to Play the Japanese Card Games Karuta and Hanafuda

Did you know that Japan has its own card games? This article will introduce games where even the design of the cards is Japanese including Karuta, Hyakunin Isshu, and Hanafuda.

What sort of Japanese Card Games Are There?

Games using playing cards or something similar are popular all over the world. Of course, there are many card games in Japan, from traditional games like Hyakunin Isshu to modern trading card games.
At the moment in Japan, the manga Chihayafuru, about a high school student who plays Hyakunin Isshu competitively, is a big hit. This has brought about an increased interest in Hyakunin Isshu. Thanks to this, today’s article will introduce the traditional card games karuta and hanafuda.

What Is Karuta?

In Japan, the term karuta usually refers to Hyakunin Isshu or Iroha Karuta. Hyakunin Isshu is based on classical waka poetry (poems composed with a meter of 5/7/5/7/7) while Iroha Karuta is based on proverbs. Incidentally, Hyakunin Isshu didn’t start life as a card game, but as an anthology of waka written by 100 poets known as Ogura Hyakunin Isshu and was first published in the 13th Century. It originated as a karuta game sometime around the 16th century whereas the comparatively new Iroha Karuta was created in the 19th Century.
Most karuta feature traditional Japanese designs, but you can also find karuta with illustrations from things such as video games and anime.

The Rules of Karuta: How to Play

This first section explains how to play Iroha Karuta, the simpler of the two games. Archaic hiragana (one of the Japanese languages two syllabaries) used 47 characters. Iroha Karuta are cards featuring one of 47 proverbs, each beginning with a different hiragana character (in some regions there are 48 karuta). First, lay out the cards printed with images ('torifuda' or pick-up cards) face up. Then, a reader reads from a card printed with written proverbs and the players look for the picture card featuring the hiragana character that corresponds to that proverb. The first person to pick up the card gets to keep it. When all of the cards have been read out, the person with the most is the winner.

In the case of Hyakunin Isshu, there are not only letters written on the cards. It is a slightly more advanced game where you stand more chance of winning if you have memorized the poems. However, there is still a way to enjoy the game even if you can’t speak Japanese. The next section will tell you how.


The standard way of playing Hyakunin Isshu is chirashi-dori. First, you take the torifuda —printed only with the written waka—and lay them face-up. Then the reader reads out the Waka one by one. Actually, the pick-up cards only have the last part of the poem on them (the last two lines which each contain seven syllables). Basically, to find the cards faster, you have to look for the last part of the waka while the first part—the three lines with 7/5/7 syllables—is being read.
It is considered a cultured and demanding game that you can’t win if you don’t know the poems.

Bozu Mekuri

You may be thinking that reading the Japanese is difficult enough without having to memorize the poems as well, but don’t worry! On each Hyakunin Isshu yomifuda (reader card) is a picture of the poem’s author alongside each waka. You can use these pictures to play 'Bozu Mekuri'.
First, gather all the cards together face down in a pack. Players sit with the pack in the center and one by one take a card from the top of the pack. If the person on the card is a nobleman (tono), the player receives the card. However, if the card has a picture of a monk (bozu), unfortunately, you must forfeit all of your cards and place them next to the main pack. If the person on the card is a noblewoman (hime), you receive all the cards next to the main pack (the cards forfeited by people who have drawn the bozu cards). When there are no cards left in the pack, the player with the most cards wins.

What is Hanafuda?

A type of karuta game originally called hana karuta, hanafuda has existed in its current form since the 18th Century. The game is played with 48 cards featuring pictures of plants and flowers. There is one flower for each month of the year and four cards for each flower, each worth varying points, with one card giving the highest score of the group, one giving the second highest and the remaining two having the lowest points value.
Incidentally, Nintendo, the company you will know for creating Super Mario Brothers, actually started life making Hanafuda. They still sell them to today, and you can even get a set featuring Mario characters.

How to Play Hanafuda: Rules and Scoring System

All players take turns to draw a card. The person who collects the best combination of cards (or the best 'yaku') to get the highest number of points is the winner. In Hanafuda, there are 12 different scoring combinations known as yaku.
Hanafuda is generally played as a two-player game referred to as koi-koi, but there are also versions for three or more players, such as hana-awase and hachi-hachi.


Here is a basic introduction to the rules of koi-koi. To prepare for the game, deal 4 cards twice to each player and place an extra set on the table. At this time, the cards given to players should be face down but those in the centre of the table should be face up. Place any leftover cards in the center of the table and decide who will go first (the 'oya' or parent) and who will go second (The 'ko' or child). Now you are ready to begin.

1. The oya checks the cards on the table. If one of their cards matches a flower/month card on the table, they can lay this and will receive both cards. If they do not have a matching card, they must place one of their cards on the table.
2. The oya turns over a card from the pack. If it matches a flower/month on the table, they receive the pair of cards. If it doesn’t match any of the cards, they leave it on the table and it is the turn of the other player.
3. Each player takes turns to complete the same sequence of moves until someone gets a yaku score combination.
4. The player who scored the yaku gets to choose whether to continue the game by stating 'koi-koi' or to end it by saying 'shuryo'.
5. If they choose to end the game, they must calculate the number of points scored from yaku combinations.

Number 4 is the crucial point in the sequence. Take a good look at your opponent’s hand. If you think you can increase your points you should choose 'koi-koi' to continue, but if it looks like you opponent might be able to achieve a yaku combination with the cards they have you should choose 'shuryo' to finish.

Next time you are stuck inside on a rainy day, you can transport yourself to Japan with a game of cards. Have a go at one of these traditional games when you have time!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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