Now, I’ll be the first person to admit that there’s a lot about Japan that I don’t know, and one of those things that I know next to nothing about is the Japanese card game karuta. ‘What’s that?’ you ask? Today I’ve collaborated with a fellow anime fan, Jessie Guill, to tell you about it!
For those of us who grew up outside Japan, card games are either casino games or Yu-Gi-Oh. We are so attached to the idea that card games are merely “games” that are connected to past time and/or quickly earn (and lose) some money. In Japan, however, a traditional card game has recently become popular among middle school and high school students, and it isn’t the kind of card game that would send you to jail.
“Hyakunin Isshu Karuta” (sometimes simply referred to as “karuta”) is a Japanese card game based on Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a compilation of one hundred poems by one hundred different poets. Karuta versions and rules vary depending on the localities, but we’re going to focus on Hyakunin Isshu Karuta alone.
A set of playing cards called Uta-garuta is needed to play the game. This set is divided into two decks: Yomifuda cards where the poets’ images and their poems are printed; and Torifuda cards which contain only the second part of the poems.
Torifuda and Yomifuda cards
At least three people are needed to play the game. Two are players and the third as the reader. The players are given 25 torifuda cards each that they line up in three rows on the floor. After a few minutes of memorizing each card’s positions, the reader takes and recites a yomifuda card. The players’ goal is to quickly identify and grab the torifuda card that corresponds to the one that is being read. The first player to touch the right card gets it and removes it from the game. When a player takes a card from the opponent’s territory, they can forward a card of their own to the opponent’s side. The first to clear their territory wins.
On the surface, it appears to be a simple game that utilizes poetry. But in reality, a single match requires patience, swift reflexes, excellent hearing, and reliable memory. In fact, a karuta player must at least memorize the first few syllables of the poems and their second verses, although memorizing all one hundred poems is advised.
Here’s a typical video of a karuta match:
Hyakunin Isshu poems were compiled in the 13th century and karuta has been around since 1600s or earlier, but it wasn’t until recently that it caught huge attention and interest of the youth. This is perhaps due to an ongoing manga and anime series called Chihayafuru. The story focuses on (mostly) high school students and their hardships as they aim to be the best karuta players in Japan (and in the world as well, since karuta isn’t popular overseas).
Karuta players in Chihayafuru, literally head-to-head over a card
Unlike western card games where the common card decks are used and popularity spreads across the globe despite the legal issues, karuta remains a niche sport even inside Japan. Perhaps it is due to the language barrier that isolates the game within those who know Japanese. In an episode of Chihayafuru, even foreigners (who lived in Japan long enough to be considered Japanese if not for their appearances) were shunned by their classmates in the past for loving karuta and Japanese culture in general.
But who knows? As the anime fandom grows and more people get involved in the language, in time the game may get the attention it deserves.