3 Traditional Card Games that Will Help You Learn More About Japan

  • There are many card games popular in Japan. Three of these games are “Karuta”,”Hanafuda” and “Menko”. Different types of beautiful cards with pictures are used to play these games. Most of them have a unique style of appearance as the pictures and letters are all related to Japan and written in Japanese. Karuta cards could be played by those who can read Japanese well as it involves Japanese poems, words etc. The Hanafuda and the Menko cards are the other two kinds of cards commonly used. Menko, being a game for children, seems to be the easiest to remember. Even though hanafuda could be played easily, the rules of points and card set formation are a little difficult to remember.

    1. Karuta

    It was only very recently that I found some karuta cards made from ceramics and wooden plaques at the Oribe Hills of Toki, Gifu. Till then, I was not so familiar with the game named ‘Karuta’. My friend talked to me about the game briefly and told that it is played by Japanese people during celebrations. And I found the original playing cards at the 100 yen shop, but not for 100 yen. It cost 500 yen for a set of cards in the shop.

    Karuta is a Japanese card game whose object is to pick up the correct card from an array of available cards. There are about 100 cards that belong to two groups. Thus, in total, the traditional Kartua game consists of 200 cards. The two sets of cards are named the ‘Yomifuda’ and the ‘Torifuda’. “Yomifuda” are the set of reading cards while “torifuda” are the grabbing cards. There will be some writings on the yomifuda based on which the cards from torifuda group is selected by the players. One of the players will read out the writing on the yomifuda while others search among the torifuda set of cards to find the correct match. The person who finds the most correctly matching torifuda will be the winner of the game. “Uta-garuta” is a very famous version of the Karuta game in which poems are used on the cards.

    Uta-garuta (pictured above): In this game, the yomifuda cards usually contain the first three lines of a poem and the players have to grab the torifuda with the last two lines. The cards will have the pictures and names of some people along with the poems. The poems were selected by the Japanese poet Fujiwara no Teika and are called ‘Ogura Hyakunin Isshu’. These are small poems called ‘Tanka’ with five lines only. They were used in some ancient Japanese game named “Hyakunin Isshu”. During New Year’s Day celebrations, when Japanese people gathered together at home, they used to play this game.

    Iroha-garuta: This is a more simple version of the same game which can also be played by small children. The yomifuda have only hiragana characters written in the corner with a picture on the card. And the players have to find out the torifuda with a proverb related to the picture on the card which starts with that letter.

    There are still many other variations for the karuta game. Many clubs all around Japan are making an effort to make karuta more popular among the new generation by conducting seasonal competitions. There are karuta tournaments conducted in schools also. It is a very popular game in Japan among all age groups of people. Since the game consists of 100 cards, players must be careful and very keen throughout the game in selecting the correct cards in the fastest way possible. There are many mangas like ‘Chihayafuru’ which helped in the promotion of the game to a great extent. This game is often played at school by children as part of their education. Now, this game is available in the most modern way as mobile applications and video games.


    Menko is another Japanese card game in which the cards used are also known as menko. Any number of players can join this simple game. From among them, one of the people will be selected as the first player. It is usually decided by playing a game of rock-paper-scissors. Others have to place one of their menko cards down and the first player tries to flip these cards by throwing one of his cards over it. If the player is able to flip any of the cards, they can take both their card and the flipped one. If they do not succeed in flipping the card, it will be the next player’s turn. The player with the largest number of menko will be the winner of the game.

    Menko cards have pictures in various styles on them including pictures from manga, famous drawings, animes, and photos of cartoon characters, sports players etc. People used to collect menko cards based on their fields of interest.

    3. Hanafuda

    Hanafuda (or flower cards) are a very common set of playing cards in Japan. There are 48 cards in total available in a deck. These cards are actually used to play a number of Japanese card games like Koi Koi, Hachi, Tensho etc. The cards make up 12 sets of 4 cards each representing the 12 months. Each set has various pictures. The pictures include the flowers associated with the particular month on the card as well as some additional pictures like ribbons, butterflies, birds etc. Some cards have no points and some have points based on the pictures on it.

    Usually, this game can be played by two people. The game starts with shuffling all 48 cards and allotting 8 cards each for the two players. Another 8 cards will be placed at the center of the table. If there are more than two players, the number of cards distributed will be reduced by one. For example, for three players, there will be 7 cards, for four players it will be 6 and so on. All of these cards will be neatly arranged in two rows facing the players with the pictures visible. The cards at the center will be also placed in a similar manner. The rest of the cards are piled up beside the table with its front side facing down. Then the dealer or the first player known as ‘Oya’ selects a card from his or her 8 cards and finds out if there are any matching cards are there in the set of cards placed at the center. If there is a match, then the player will place their card over the matching pair. The next step is to take the topmost card from the set of piled up cards set aside on the table. Then the player will check if there is any matching pair for the new card at the center. If the player does find a pair, then they have to leave the card over it and go for another card from the piled set. This can be continued up to four times if continuous matching pairs are obtained. If they are not, the new card is left at the center of the table with the picture facing up and the matched card pair could be withdrawn from the table which belongs to the card collection of the owner. These card pairs are placed beside the player and points earned by that player are based on the pictures on the cards.

    There are various groups of cards called yaku based on the game rules. If the dealer is able to make a yaku in his first turn, they can call out “koi-koi” if they want to play more or they can stop the game. If the dealer waits with the confidence that they could make more yakus, and if their opponent makes a yaku instead, then the opponent scores double. If the player selects to stop the game, then he gains all the points allotted to the set of cards in the yaku and the game will then continue for the rest of the 12 months in the deck. There are also cards with special rules.

    Understanding and playing more Japanese card games is really interesting. You can find many videos on youtube if you really wish to learn how to play these games. Try out some of the card games in Japan and enjoy them with your friends. Have fun!

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