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Cards Without Traditional Suits

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Japanese Matching Cards

part 2

Iroha Karuta
Iroha-related Patterns

part 1

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I thank Dana Kahana, Yoshikazu Kumamoto, Luca & Nui,
Tadahiko Norieda and Mayumi Yoshimura, whose kind contribution made this page possible


Inu-B Iroha and (bottom couplet) Edo Iroha: samples of syllable I, the first card of the deck, from different editions:
inu mo arukeba bô ni ataru ("even a dog, walking around, will find a stick")

Iroha Karuta is a game very similar to Uta Karuta, described in part 1; being based on traditional Japanese proverbs, it is suitable for players who are not familiar with Hyaku-nin Isshu poems, in particular young children. This one too is a favourite game on New Year's Day.

Kyô Iroha: syllable I
issun saki wa yami no yo
("an inch ahead is darkness")

Kamigata Iroha: syllable I
issun saki wa yami
("an inch ahead is darkness")

Sometimes improperly called "alphabet cards", Iroha decks always come as a double set of 48 subjects, for a total of 96.

Inu-B Iroha: syllable HA
hana yori dango
("better than flowers are dumplings")
One half of the cards features pictures with various subjects, and on each of them is a different kana (Japanese syllable). This group is called  efuda ("picture cards"), or  torifuda ("grabbing cards"), because they are the ones captured by the players.
The second half of the set is made of 48 cards with the full text of Japanese proverbs and sayings, which match the aforesaid illustrations. These ones are called  jifuda ("character cards") or  yomifuda ("reading cards"). Each of the proverbs starts with a different syllable: by matching the single character of each picture card to the relevant proverb, the efuda and jifuda form 48 couplets.
Although this scheme is reminiscent of Uta Karuta cards (part 1), one difference is that in Iroha Karuta the illustration is featured on the card that the players have to grab, not on the reading card (see also THE EVOLUTION OF IROHA SETS, further in the page).

Quite obviously, for most of these sayings there is no matching proverb in other languages, and some of them may sound pretty strange, especially those in which only a short part of a longer idiomatic expression is mentioned. Therefore, this gallery does not provide a full table of the known proverbs, but only the ones featured on the sample cards shown. However, a list of websites specifically concerning Iroha proverbs can be found at the bottom of this section.

The illustration of each picture card, referring to the relevant proverb, is a visual help for the player - often a child - and also acts as a learning aid for the written language. For this reason, school children are indeed encouraged by adults to play Iroha Karuta.

Inu-B Iroha: syllable O, from two editions
oni ni kanab
("an iron club to a demon")

Kamigata Iroha: syllable O
outa ko ni oshierare
("a carried child teaches his parent the way")

A fewer number of Iroha decks feature both illustrations and text on all 96 cards of the set (a similar variety also exists for Uta Karuta): 48 subjects show the first half of each proverb, while the other 48 show the last part.
Unlike the aforesaid standard type, in this case the players ought to be confident with the whole series of proverbs, in order to tell them by their first half. However, also this second kind of deck is made of 48 couplets.

Inu-B Iroha: syllable YA
yasumono kai no zeni ushinai
("buying cheap stuff is losing money")

While the pattern of Uta Karuta cards always follows a classic style, Iroha decks exist in a much greater number of varieties: there is no standard style, therefore each manufacturer is left free to choose both the illustrations' subjects and their graphic technique: ink-drawing, water-painting, or even very particular forms of art, such as kirigami ("cut paper"), by which both the figures and the words are skilfully cut from a monochrome sheet of paper; samples of a kirigami set may be seen in this page and in part 2 (Edo Iroha and Kamigata Iroha editions).

The ordering of Iroha cards is not random: it is based on an old poem from the Heian period, for which the Buddhist monk Kukai (774-835) is traditionally credited.
In this poem all the different hiragana are used once, their sequence creating actual words, and from the three opening syllables (I, RO, HA) the composition was given its name. The set also includes two obsolete syllables, WI and WE, no longer used in modern Japanese. For this reason, in some recent editions the difficult syllables also bear a small text that suggests the correct pronounciation, as seen in the sample on the right.

syllables with pronounciation aid, from an edition illustrated
by Kazuyoshi Iino, published by Kin no Hoshi (Japan)

the 48 syllables of the deck,
according to the Iroha ordering
Instead N, an actual syllable in Japanese, is not included in the Iroha set, because no word starts with it. Therefore, to reach a total of 48 cards, the monosyllabic word KYÔ was added; it is the only one spelt with a Chinese glyph,  ("capital city, metropolis"), whose meaning in the proverb refers to the city of Kyoto.

Edo Iroha: syllable CHI
chiri mo tsumotte / yama to naru
"also trash piles up and
becomes a mountain"
For a long time, this poem also acted as a reference for the ordering of the syllables, and I-Ro-Ha had the same meaning as "A-B-C" for Western alphabets, though in modern Japanese the syllables now follow a more rational ordering, based on their sound.
In Iroha decks, also the series of proverbs follow the old sequence of syllables.

Inu-B Iroha: syllable U
uso kara deta makoto
("the truth that came out from a lie")

Inu-B Iroha: syllable NO
nodo moto sugireba atsusa wasururu
("once the deepest part of the throat
is passed, the heat is forgotten")


The proverbs featured in these decks are traditional sayings, many of which go back in time about 200 years, and probably more.

The earliest known version of the game was the  Gojuu-Ku Karuta ("fifty verse cards"); in these sets the first half of the poem was on the reading card (yomifuda, which also carried the illustration), and its last part on the grabbing card (torifuda, which had only text),
  in the picture on the right.
During the 18th century, the cards began to be inscribed with both phonetic syllables and glyphs.

Inu-B Iroha: syllable WO
(actual sound: O)
oite wa ko ni shitagau
("the old man obeys his son")
As of c.1820, the illustration was moved from the yomifuda to the torifuda, and both cards featured the text in full (). In some editions the poems were replaced by popular sayings and proverbs; maybe in order to increase the available space for the illustration, or to introduce a further element of skill, the torifuda was left only with the initial syllable of the proverb, as in modern Iroha Karuta sets ().
map of Japan

Kamigata Iroha: syllable KE
(actual sound: GE)
geta to yaki-miso
("footware and fermented bean paste")
The first series of proverbs was born in Kyoto, whence its first name  Kyô Iroha, and rapidly spread to the adjacent Kamigata area, between Kyoto and Osaka, where the slightly modified set was renamed  Kamigata Iroha.
The game then moved towards other parts of the country, and reached Edo (now Tokyo), where during the first half of the 1800s the series of proverbs considerably changed into  Edo Iroha, according to the local tradition and to the different dialect.
A further variety of the set of proverbs was reported in the area of Owari (presently Nagoya), around 1850: this one was known as  Owari Iroha, but due to the prevailing popularity of Edo's version it did not last long, dying out only 50 years later.
By the turn of the century, the Edo Iroha had grown very popular throughout Japan. But in several areas single proverbs were replaced by local ones and, in time, a few modern sayings replaced older ones. Since the opening proverb of the set remained faithful to Edo's version ("even a dog, walking around, will find a stick") these editions are now referred to using the two keywords inu-b, "dog-stick".
So the editions now produced may be more practically divided into two main groups: those whose first proverb is "one more drop of alcohol, and it gets dark" (Kyô Iroha and Kamigata Iroha, of older origin but fairly unusual now), and those whose first proverb reads "even a dog..." (Edo Iroha and Inu Bô sets, sprung at a later stage but more common).

Edo Iroha: syllable RU
ruri mo hari mo / teraseba hikaru
("both lapis lazuli and crystals
shine under the light of the sun")

Edo Iroha: syllable ME
me no ue no / kobu
("a swelling on one's eye")

Kamigata Iroha: syllable ME
mekura no kaki nozoki
("the blind man's peep through the fence")

Early sets were printed and sold as large uncut sheets, one for the efuda and one for the jifuda. Cards had to be cut into shape by players before using them. The illustrations were printed on rather thin paper, so that people glued them onto a second sheet, in order to make them sufficiently thick to play with. However, they were not made to last very long; in fact, samples of surviving original decks are really scarce.

replica of an early 19th century uncut sheet of Iroha cards;
there are 48 couples of subjects, plus a double title card with the name of the publisher (bottom left)

From a graphic point of view, most Iroha sets may be considered unique, differing in style and illustrations from any other edition. It's up to the author to draw illustrations whose subject is inspired by the relevant proverb, but the same card from different decks is sometimes barely recognizable.

Iroha Karuta is played basically following the same rules as Uta Karuta(i.e. the "100 poets" game), although the cards used are less than half the ones in the aforesaid game.

Kyô Iroha: syllable WA
warau kado ni wa fuku kitaru
("in a merry family happiness comes")
After the picture cards have been arranged face up on a playing surface, a third person or judge starts reading one yomifuda at a time, while the two opponents have to spot and pick up the matching card as fast as possible. The winner is he who collects the greatest number of cards.

Edo Iroha: syllable SE
se ni hara wa / kaherarenu
("the belly cannot be replaced
by the back")
Other sources for Iroha proverbs and cards on the web are:
  • iroha karuta (only in Japanese), providing the whole series of proverbs from all three versions;
  • iroha karuta, for historical notes, interesting pictures and a translation of Edo proverbs;
  • iroha, showing the whole set of pictures from a deck (text only in Japanese).

  • samples of the last syllable in Edo Iroha and Inu-B Iroha sets, KYÔ:
    Kyô no yume Ôsaka no yume ("dream of Kyoto, dream of Osaka")

    below: the same card in Kyô Iroha and Kamigata Iroha sets reads
    Kyô ni inaka ari ("in Kyoto there is countryside")

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