FAST AND SERIOUS – All about Japanese Cards

Card games have always fascinated young and old alike and nothing like an ol’ game of Bridge or Bluff to spice things up. Like popular card games across the world, Japanese traditional card games have for centuries delighted players, boggled lookers-on and exhilarated winners. Here we take a look at some of the famous card games from Japan which have become a favourite world-over.


While a normal deck would include 52 cards, a Japanese set, called Hanafuda (花札), has 48 cards. In Nihongo, Hana means ‘flower’ and fuda means ‘card’. Taken together, Hanafuda refers to cards which have flowers drawn on them, or flower-cards. The interesting part is that this set of cards consists of 12 suits with 4 cards, each suit corresponding to one of the twelve months. The flowers etched on the card depict the months which are famous for them. Out of the four cards per suit, two have just flowers drawn, a third one has a picture of tanzaku (narrow vertical cards on which Japanese poems or sayings are written) in addition to the flowers and the last one has some lifeform (animal, bird or human) depicted along with the flower. This last card of a suit has the highest points.

The first suit with Pine showing the month of January

The second suit with plum flowers depicting February

 Sakura blossoms make up the third suit depicting March; the fourth card showcases the custom of Hanami (花見) i.e. flower-viewing


It is believed that the Portuguese brought playing cards to Japan in the late 16th century. Their 48-card set gradually became popular among the common people and evolved into the Hanafuda, making it essentially Japanese.

Nintendo, the famous gaming company, was in fact set up to popularise this set of cards. Along with the classic version having flowers, the company also came up Mario-themed cards and the Daitouryou deck also called the Napolean deck (it has the face of Napolean on the cover). Various games can be played with a deck of Hanafuda like Koi-Koi (which is now a standard game).


Menko (面子) is played using special thick cards which have anime or manga figures drawn on them. It is believed that Menko cards depict the current culture or trend. During the Edo period, Menko cards were supposed to have carried images of warriors, ninjas and samurais. Later on, even sumo wrestlers and famous baseball players began to be portrayed on Menko.

A 1950s set of Samurai Menko cards ; Source: Pinterest

The method to play Menko is quite simple. There are two players (say A and B) in a standard game, each having equal number of cards. A begins by tossing a card on the ground. B then throws one of his/her own menko and in doing so tries to flip A’s card over. If the card flips, B gets A’s card. In the next round, B throws the card first. The game continues till any one player runs out of cards. As usual, the one with maximum cards wins. This game has many variations with lot more complex rules. In one such variation, all players put down their cards except one who throws his/her menko to flip over as many cards as possible.


Menko may seem to be easy but flipping one card over by throwing another card towards it is actually quite trying. You have to be fast enough to create a gust while throwing which is just enough to topple the card. Not to mention the great aiming skills you need to possess.


Another popular set of cards is called Karuta (かるた). There are normally two sets of 100 cards each. One set is called the yomifuda (読み札), ‘reading’ cards, while the other set has corresponding cards known as torifuda (取り札), the ‘grabbing’ cards.

There are broadly two kinds of Karuta: Iroha-karuta いろはかるたand Uta-garuta歌がるた. Iroha-Karuta has proverbs written on the yomifuda with corresponding pictures on the torifuda. In Uta-garuta, yomi-fuda has complete poems written while the tori-fuda has the last two lines of the poems.

Iroha-Karuta cards

For playing Karuta, a ‘Reader’ is appointed first. In a standard game, there are two players. The torifuda are all placed face-up and the players sit facing each other. The reader picks a card at random from the yomifuda pile and reads it aloud. The players have to decide which torifuda matches the reading and need to grab whichever card they think is right. If it turns to be a correct match, the player gets to keep it and hence wins that round. If both players grab the right card, the fastest one, the one who grabs first, keeps the card. This continues till the entire yomifuda pile has been read. The player who manages to get the highest number of cards is the victor. There are Karuta competitions and championships which are held all over Japan. The rules for competitive Karuta are slightly different and more detailed than the standard version.

Karuta is one interesting game for those who want to learn or improve their Japanese reading skills. For the purpose of learning, it is also played using Hiragana cards. Try your hand at Hiragana-Karuta in one of our exciting JCA events on June 10.

Otanoshimi ne!


Romaji Kanji Meaning
Kachi 勝ち Victory
Make 負け Defeat
Katsu/Kachimasu 勝ちる・勝ちます To win
Makeru/Makemasu 負ける・負けます To lose
Shousha 勝者 Winner
Yuushousha 優勝者 Champion
Haisha 敗者 Loser, the defeated party

– Anjanalakshmi・安社奈

JCA Task Force




2 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s