Cards and Card Games


Playing cards are called “karuta” in Japanese, the word being an importation of the Portuguese word, “carta.” It is not surprising, then, to find that the first cards appeared in Japan after the Portuguese arrived. Until the Japanese encountered playing cards, all their games were either board games like shōgi, go, or sugoroku, or matching games played with shells and the like. It seems not to have occurred to them to make such things of paper, as such pastimes were primarily the purview of the leisure-classes, who had the time and money to have full sets of shells for matching, etc. The introduction of the cards, however, allowed them to be mass-produced, and after a few decades their popularity spread to other classes.

Tenshō karuta

Tenshō karuta

The first recorded production of cards was in north Kyūshū (Miike), c. 1575 (the Momoyama period). This was the Tenshō era, so these cards came to be called “Tenshō karuta.” The cards were printed in full color, and were based on Portuguese models, so they had four suits, each of three face cards and ace to nine, for a total of forty-eight cards. They immediately became popular with bushi and high ranking persons who encountered them, and could learn card games from the European traders and officials. A reproduction of a set of Tenshō karuta is depicted here.

It isn't clear what games, exactly, were being played with these cards. Texts referring to karuta playing during the period are little more helpful than someone today saying “playing cards” - this does not clarify whether it is gin, poker, bridge, or even old maid being played. It is probable that along with the cards themselves, card games popular in Europe at the time were the first to be imported and played in Japan.

The first written reference to playing cards appeared in 1597 - and in a few years proscriptions were already being issued forbidding gaming.

With the popularity of these paper cards, more card-based games came to be produced, including the popular Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poems from One Hundred Poets), a form of matching game with the first half of a poem written on one card, and an illustration and the finishing half written on another card. It's not exactly clear when the first Hyakunin Isshu sets were produced, but they became incredibly popular. These poems were ancient, and all of the aristocracy knew them, or should have.

The illustrated cards were laid out on the ground, with the competitors kneeling on either side. One person, the caller, would pick a random card out of the other 100, and read aloud the opening strophe of the poem. The players would try to find and pluck out the corresponding card, and the winner was the one who had the most cards at the end. This game is still played today, but it is considered a New Year's game, and viewers of Japanese television are regularly treated to scenes of erudite (they need to be) young Japanese women in kimono kneeling on the floor and batting away cards with great agility and speed.

Many people are familiar with hanafuda (flower cards) and other Japanese card games such as I-Ro-Ha karuta (= A-B-C cards), but unfortunately for SCA purposes, most card games as they are played today, including these two, are hopelessly modern, having developed during the Edo period. The true Japanese card games, utilizing original Japanese cards, came decades after the introduction of cards by the Portuguese.

Playing karuta games in the SCA

There's no reason that you can't play historical European card games using Japanese period-style cards! If you want to reproduce an Tenshō karuta set, just use a heavy-weight paper (say, 100-pound stock) and print out the graphic here, or based on the images, draw and paint or print your own.

Hyakunin Isshu sets are very easy to find, including both modern and classically traditional sets. Unfortunately, the game is difficult to play unless you speak Japanese (or at least read kana) - but the same matching game principle could easily be used with other images, such as illustrated flash cards for Japanese scenes and objects, mon of famous noble houses (match the mon to the noble’s name and portrait), or something along those lines.

Online resources

Miike Karuta Card and Material History Museum. This is a museum dedicated to cards, but unfortunately, most of the information is in Japanese.

Chihayafuru, an anime and manga centering around a young woman who decides to become a competitive karuta player.