Karuta かるた : the surprising features of Japanese card games

Karuta refers to a variety of card games in Japan, in particular card matching games.

Karuta (かるた) comes from the Portuguese word carta, meaning card. Indeed, the Portuguese introduced card games to Japan during the 16th century. However most card games that were introduced at the time were replaced with purely Japanese ones, with cards bearing Japanese imagery.

Originally, the word Karuta referred to basically any card game, however today it mainly points toward card matching games, whose origins go way back.

In modern day Japan, a certain type of Karuta holds competitive matches and is, similarly to darts, considered as a sport due to its intensity.

karuta no fuda

History 歴史

So, Karuta originated from card games that were introduced by Portuguese traders during the 16th century. However, the game that eventually became the Karuta we know today was originally inspired by Kai-Awase (貝合わせ), which is a game that was played since the Heian Era (平安時代, 794 – 1185). It consisted of a number of gorgeously painted shells; half of them bore a picture and the other half a text, (sometimes both halves bore complementary pictures) and the goal was to match two shells to make up a whole. This concept sort of merged with the card games that the Portuguese imported to Japan, giving place to Karuta, which at the time pretty much referred to any card game played. Nonetheless, today, if you want to refer to a general card game like poker, the word for it is Torampu (トランプ). If you say Karuta, it’ll specifically denote the games which originated from Kai-Awase and merged with Portuguese cards. Which makes for a perfect transition to talk about those.

shells used in kaiawase
Shells used in Kai-Awase

3 Main Forms of Karuta

Although there are variants, there are 3 main forms of Karuta:

One of them is Hyakunin-isshu (百人一首), also known as Uta-Garuta (歌ガルタ). This is also the type of Karuta that is played in competition, which we’ll talk about below. Hyakunin-isshu is based off of an early 13th century poetry compilation called Ogura Hyakunin isshu, containing a hundred Waka poems (和歌, type of Japanese poetry) from a hundred poets.
It consists of 2 sets of 100 cards; one is called Yomi-fuda (読み札, reading cards), on which are borne the complete poems, and the other set is called Tori-fuda (取り札, taking cards), which bear the last lines of each poem. Each Tori-fuda corresponds to a Yomi-fuda.
One person, chosen to be the reader, takes a card from the Yomi-fuda deck and reads it out loud. Then, the other players race to pick up the corresponding card among the hundred laid out in front of them. The winner is the player who managed to get the most Tori-fuda.
This game is traditionally played during New Year’s.

hyakunin isshu
Hyakunin Isshu cards

A variant of the Hyakunin-isshu, is Iroha Karuta (いろはかるた). It’s an easier to understand version of the first game, mostly oriented toward children. Similarly to Uta-garuta, there is a Yomi-fuda and Tori-fuda deck, however instead of having 100 cards in each deck, there are only 48. On the Yomi-fuda is inscribed a proverb, and on the Tori-fuda you’ll find a picture and a kana at one corner of the card, corresponding to the first syllable of a Yomi-fuda. There is a corresponding proverb for each syllable of the hiragana (including obsolete letters ゐwi and ゑwe, using the Iroha, thus giving its name to the game). In addition to using each Kana, the Kanji 京 (kyō, “capital”), is included, to replace the letter ん (n) of the Hiragana syllabary, with which a word cannot start.
Same playing principle as Hyakunin-isshu: someone reads a Yomi-fuda, and the players have to look for and grab the corresponding Tori-fuda. The winner is the player who got the most Tori-fuda.

Iroha Karuta
Iroha Karuta cards

A third common Karuta game we can mention is Hanafuda (花札), which directly originated from Portuguese card games; it’s also known as Hana-karuta (花かるた). It consists of 2 decks of 48 cards which themselves contain 12 sets of 4 cards associating a certain month with a flower flower (eg: February -> plum; March -> sakura). The rules vary whether you play with 2,  3 or with 7 players; they also differ depending on where you play in Japan. The goal of the game is to gain a number of points, and although the concept relies on matching cards, the structure is similar to Poker.

Hanafuda cards

Competitive Karuta

Competitive Karuta (競技かるた, Kyōgi-karuta) is a type of Karuta that uses the Hyakunin-isshu cards and follows the rules set by the All Japan Karuta Association. This type of Karuta got a lot more attention and saw its adherent population grow thanks to a big hit manga/anime called Chihayafuru, which is about competitive Karuta. It’s also how I personally discovered Karuta.

In Competitive Karuta, the games are only played 1vs1. There are team matches where 3 or 5 players of the same team are aligned and play 1vs1 games against another team in front of them; the team with the most individual victories wins the match.

Also, except for certain competitions, there are no restrictions on who can play against who, therefore it’s not rare to see matches opposing children and adults for example.

The cards used for Competitive Karuta are firmer than the ones used simply to play during New Year’s and are made as such so as to be to swept easily off the ground. Instead of using 100 Tori-fuda, 50 are randomly taken from of the deck. Within those 50, 25 are randomly selected and given to each player to place, face up, in his or her territory.

The goal of the game is to rid one’s territory of all the cards.

Once the players have placed their cards in their respective territories, they have 15 minutes to memorize the whole panel of cards; that includes of course the opponent’s territory. After having memorized the cards, the players have 2 minutes to practice their swing. Once the time is over, the players and the reader each pay their respects and the game starts.

At the beginning of the game, the reciter reads an introductory poem, which is not part of the 100 poems, in order to allow the players to familiarize themselves with the reader’s voice and reading rhythm. After that, the reciter reads again the last part of the introductory poem, picks a random Yomi-fuda out of the 100 and reads it out loud. The players then race each other to touch the card corresponding to the poem that was read. The first player to touch the card takes it. Each turn, the reciter reads the last part of the introductory poem before picking a Yomi-fuda and reading it.

Given that there are only 50 cards in play, and a 100 that can be read, there are what are called “Ghost Cards” (空札, Karafuda): they are cards that have been read, but are not present on the “battlefield” and therefore cannot be taken. If a player touches any card while a ghost card is being read, then they commit an Otetsuki (お手つき) and incur a penalty.

Otetsuki are faults; if one is committed by a player, the opponent can transfer one of his cards to their territory. If a double fault is committed, they incur a penalty of two cards. A double fault might include: touching a wrong card in the opponent’s territory while the opponent touches the correct card in the faulting player’s territory.

Competitive Karuta is Hard

Competitive Karuta is renowned to be very hard and intense. The players are extremely fast and their movements are very fierce and sportlike.

Here’s a video to get an idea of what it looks like (this is the female’s championship final):

So this was a small presentation of Karuta and what stands behind it. There are plenty of other variants that exist, these are the 3 main that seemed to be played today, and of course there is much more to competitive Karuta than mentioned above, we just scratched the surface.

What do you think of Karuta? Had you heard about it before? Have you tried it?

2 Replies to “Karuta かるた : the surprising features of Japanese card games”

    1. Hi! Thanks for your comment.

      I’m not exactly sure what you mean. The cards are in Japanese of course. Although if you’re referring to whether they’re written using Kanji or Hiragana, then I’ve seen both. For instance I know that there are special decks for children that only use Hiragana and decks that display the poems using Kanji. However I don’t know what the regulations are for the nationals and other official contests. But I know both exist.

      I hope this somewhat helped.

      Have a good one!

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