Karuta is a Japanese card game that takes its name from the Portuguese word for card – carta. There are various types of Karuta in Japan many depending on the region that they originate from, there are also different versions for children that make use of nursery rhymes or mythology influenced cards.
The mythology influenced cards are called Obake Karuta, they contain many types of monsters and creatures known to certain myths and legends in Japan. An interesting comparison to this type of Karuta created during the Edo period would be the modern-day collectable card games such as Yu-Gi-Oh! and the Pokemon Trading Card Game.
Hanafuda is a card game that uses a flower based design where each card represents a different month of the year, a set contains 48 cards and is basically the Japanese equivalent of our own playing cards.
In recent years Karuta has been getting some good exposure in the western world through the use of anime, Chihayafuru being the main driving force of this. Based on a manga by Yuki Suetsugu that began publishing in 2007, Chihayafuru became an anime in the fall season of 2011 and has just finished airing its second season.
Chihayafuru follows Chihaya Ayase a young schoolgirl who befriends a new classmate and through their interactions she is introduced to Karuta. Inspired by her new friends love and ability in Karuta she comes to love Karuta herself and decides to play Competitive Karuta along with her friends.
Competitive Karuta uses the Uta-Garuta deck of Karuta cards. Uta-Garuta is a kind of Karuta that makes use of Hyakunin Isshu which is a collection of one hundred poems, commonly translated as “one hundred people, one poem”. In a game of Competitive Karuta, there are two decks, Yomifuda (reading cards) and Torifuda (playing cards) with 100 cards in each, each of the Hyakunin Isshu poems is split between two cards.
Competitive Karuta is a one-on-one game where each of the players randomly selects 25 Torifuda cards from 50 randomly pre-selected Torifuda. The Torifuda are then placed face-up in layers of three in each of the player’s territory. Players are then allowed 15 minutes to memorise their card placements. The match begins with a reader reciting an introductory poem that is not a part of the one hundred poems, this allows players to familiarise themselves with the reader’s voice and rhythm.
During the match, the reader recites the opening of the poem from a Yomifuda while the players try to take the corresponding Torifuda on the playing field before their opponent. The end of the game is decided when one player has removed all cards in their territory from play, a player can take a card from the opponent’s territory if successful they can transfer one of their own cards to their opponent.
Competitive Karuta is not without its prestige, any would-be Karuta Meijin or Queen will have to compete through different tournaments in the hope of raising their rank. The class system starts from E class (beginner) to A-class (4th dan or above), Dan refers to the grade of the individual as you would see in martial arts such as Karate or Judo.
The highest titles given in Karuta are to the winners of the Japanese national championship tournament, the title Meijin is awarded to the winner of the men’s division while the title Queen is awarded to the winner of the women’s division. This event is held every January at Omi Jingu (a Shinto Shrine) in Ōtsu, Shiga, the high school equivalent is held every July.
Karuta is a very popular traditional card game within Japan and boasts a large number of competitive Karuta players but only around 2000 of those are ranked C-class (1st Dan) or above and registered in the ‘All Japan Karuta Association’. Although a small number of what could be classed as professional players currently in Japan the sport is still strong and in September 2012 hosted its first international tournament, including players from China, South Korea, Thailand, New Zealand and the U.S.
For those interested in learning more about Karuta and the Hyakunin Isshu (one hundred poems) please check out the links below: