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~~ Gallery 8 ~~
Cards Without Traditional Suits

Japanese Matching Cards
part 1
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Hen-Tsukuri Karuta
Uta Karuta
Shimo-no Ku Karuta

part 2

part 3

part 4


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

skip the historical notes


Iroha Karuta
The origin of Uta Karuta dates back to the early 1600s, about half a century after the first Western cards had been taken to Japan by Portuguese sailors (see the history of local cards in the Japanese gallery).
Uta Karuta
However, before this game was created, similar ones were played by the noble and the high class by using sea shells, on which a text was painted. This was Uta Awase ("poem combining"), in which half poem was written on one shell, and the remaining verses on a second shell, which in the game had to be correctly matched with the former one.
One of these old sets is shown in the "EXHIBITION" page of the Miike Playing Card Museum.

Uta Karuta did not change much the structure of the earlier game, but the use of an affordable material such as paper, instead of shells, helped the pastime to become popular among common people.
shell featuring half poem

shells featuring matching pictures
Another early game, of the same age as Uta Awase, was Kai Ôi; also in this case subjects (pictures) were painted on shells, and had to be matched in couplets. Other themes followed, such as birds and flowers (Hana-Tori Awase), from which the flower card group sprang (see Hanafuda).
Following this scheme of matching subjects, in the late 18th century the game of Iroha Karuta, based on popular proverbs, was devised in Kyoto (central Japan), from where it later reached the rest of the country. The culture of this region had already spread its influence over most parts of Japan, especially in the fields of language and arts.
The game soon became a children's favourite as a New Year festivity pastime, and it is still enjoyed anywhere in the country.


Somewhat controversial is the historical record of Hen-Tsukuri Karuta, a card game based on Chinese/Japanese characters, mentioned by a very limited number of sources.
In average glyphs, the hen or radical is very often the left part, which conveys a basic concept (e.g. "water", "tree", "ground", etc.), while the tsukuri is the right part, which defines the glyph's final and more specific meaning (e.g. from "water""sea", "to wash", "pond", etc., or from "ground""place", "land", "castle", or from "tree""willow", "board", and so on).
A Hen-Tsukuri Karuta deck may contain a variable number of cards; no less than 100-120 different are needed for a standard game. The main goal is to form existing characters by matching cards, as shown in the simplified diagram on the right.

each subject may be used either as hen or as tsukuri
Hen-Tsukuri Karuta was played during the Edo period (17th to mid 19th century), when it was rather popular. Despite the original game should be considered obsolete, nowadays several modern editions based on a similar principle have been placed on the market, although both the cards and the rules often slightly differ from the classic version.
The edition shown above and on the right, officially called Kanji-Hakushi ("Chinese character expert", by Okuno Karuta, Japan), has rules very similar to the original game: there are 125 cards, which may be used either as hen or as tsukuri, and the players take turns in picking the covered ones from a pile, and arrange them either horizontally or vertically, so to form glyphs made of two or even three cards, as shown in the picture.
Hen-Tsukuri Karuta, or its modern versions, may be compared to the Western game of Scrabble or, even closer, to the card game called Lexicon (see page 2).

a few sample combinations


the Uta Karuta samples feature the same subjects taken from a hand-painted mid 18th century deck
(in the Fournier Museum, Spain) and from two modern editions by Nintendo and Ôishi Tengudo (Japan);
the Shimo-no Ku Karuta samples come from a modern edition by Nintendo

each row features the same yomifuda from
an early deck (left) and from two modern editions
Uta Karuta ("poem cards"), or simply Karuta ("cards"), also known in the West as "100-poet cards", is a traditional non-gambling game, enjoyed throughout Japan especially on New Year's Day; even schools often hold tournaments.
The two hundred cards in the set feature short Japanese compositions, from a classic anthology of one hundred poems called  Hyaku-nin Isshu ("one lyric by one-hundred authors"). The anthology was compiled in the 13th century, from earlier works. Each of the one hundred poems, whose themes are love, the seasons, and several other subjects, is by a different author. Their traditional style is called  tanka ("short song") or, in ancient times,  waka ("harmonious poem"): each composition consists of five verses only, for a total of thirty-one syllables.

One half of the deck shows Japanese personages, wearing traditional clothes, with the full poem in small characters above them: these are called  yomifuda, or "reading cards".
The remaining one hundred subjects (picture below) are not illustrated, but feature a shorter and larger text: the last two verses of the aforesaid poems. These ones are called  torifuda ("grabbing cards"), because players have to get hold of them during the game.

The pattern of the Uta Karuta set is very traditional, as shown by the comparison between present editions and sets over two centuries old: the poems and the illustrations remained basically unchanged.
The exact date of origin of the game is uncertain; it was first reported in the 17th century, and sets similar to the ones produced today already existed by the second half of the 18th century, although up to the late 1800s they were painted by hand, thus much less affordable for the general public.

The personages that appear in each yomifuda card are the one hundred poets included in the anthology, i.e. the actual authors of the verses. Their names are spelt in the top right corner of each subject, before the text of their lyric (as shown in the previous picture). Most of the poets are featured sitting in various attitudes, and some of their distinctive deatil attributes (hairstyle, moustache and/or beard, etc.) have been steadily maintained in modern editions.

old and modern torifuda, with the last two verses
of one of the poems; they all refer to the same lyric

In the earliest editions (1600-1750), the only difference was that the reading card (yomifuda) together with the poet's portrait featured only the first half of the poem, not the whole text.

Not only male authors are found in the anthology: quite a few female poets too were included. In early editions some of the women are seen from the back, or partly hidden, probably as a form of modesty, as in the two samples shown below.
Instead the torifuda cards contain nothing but the text; in some editions, particularly old ones, the background may have a decorative texture.

To play Karuta, the two opponents lay torifuda face up. Then a third person (the game's reader, or judge) picks up one yomifuda, and starts reciting its text; the goal of the players is to recognize the poem, and grab the corresponding torifuda before the opponent does so.

the same couplet (yomifuda and matching torifuda) from the
three aforesaid editions: note how the personages look similar

Needless to say that the best players know all the poems by heart, at the point that they can tell the right card from the very first sound uttered by the reader. Some poems, though, share the same opening syllables, thus make the search more difficult.

The Hyaku-nin Isshu anthology and the related game are so popular in Japan that competitions are regularly held, with both young and elderly participants. Often, the battle for the card that has been called is almost physical: a vivid description can be read in David Bull's "KARUTA: SPORT OR CULTURE?". Pictures of one of these competitions are shown in this other Karuta page.

two yomifuda with female poets; in old times
they were often featured turned round, or hidden

In Hokkaido (Japan's northern island) Karuta is played with a similar set, but the torifuda are slightly larger, and traditionally made of wood. In fact, this variety is also called Ita Karuta ("wooden board cards"), but its official name is Shimo-no Ku Karuta (more or less "cards of the second half verses").
This version was probably born in Kanto (the western area comprising the city of Tokyo), and then moved further north towards Hokkaido, where its tradition consolidated.

Besides the different material, the text of these cards (or large tiles, about 5 mm or  inch thick) is featured in a particular hand-written calligraphic style, with the opening characters larger than the following ones, for an easier reference in play.
The yomifuda, instead, are identical to the standard ones, although in some editions, such as the one shown in this page, they do not feature the portrait of the relevant poet, but have a plain white background.
Despite its regional origin, a national society of Shimo-no Ku Karuta players exists.

two torifuda and matching yomifuda

Lastly, in a less common version of Karuta, the double set of cards features verses written by two different authors, a form of poetry known as  renga. In these editions, the opening lines of the poem, by the first author, are on the yomifuda, while the second part, by the other author (almost as a reply), is found on the torifuda. When the reader calls the first part of the poem, the players must find the closing part.

More about the anthology, the game, and a full list of the poems with parallel translation, can be found in the OGURA HYAKUNIN ISSHU page, by "The Japanese Initiative".

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