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Karuta: Traditional Japanese Playing Cards – History

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/22 Traditional Culture , , , ,

Karuta (かるた) is a Japanese card game. It is from the Portuguese word “carta” which means card. The basic idea of any karuta game is to be able to quickly determine which card out of an array of cards is required and then to grab the card before it is grabbed by an opponent. There are various types of cards which can be used to play karuta. It is also possible to play this game using two standard decks of playing cards.


Example of Karuta Cards. (Image from AC-Illust)

 Two Types of Cards in a Karuta Game

There are two kinds of cards used in karuta. One kind is yomifuda (読札) or “reading cards”, and the other is torifuda (取り札) or “grabbing cards.” As they were denoted, the words in the yomifuda are read and players will have to find its associated torifuda before anybody else does.

The two types of karuta cards that are most often seen are the “uta-garuta” and “iroha-garuta”. In “uta-garuta”, players try to find the last two lines of a waka given the first three lines. It is often possible to identify a poem by its first one or two syllables. The poems for this game are taken from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu and are traditionally played on New Year’s Day.


Anyone who can read hiragana can play “iroha-garuta” (いろはがるた). In this type, a typical torifuda features a drawing with a kana at one corner of the card. Its corresponding yomifuda features a proverb connected to the picture with the first syllable being the kana displayed on the torifuda. Karuta is often played by children at elementary school and junior high-school level during class, as an educational exercise. Although several kinds of Karuta games are described below, in reality any kind of information that can be represented in card form can be used including shapes, colours, words in English, small pictures and the like.

Karuta Origin

Playing cards were introduced to Japan by the Portuguese traders during the mid -6th century. The first indigenous Japanese deck was the Tenshō karuta named after the Tenshō period (1573-1592). It was a 48 card deck with the 10s missing like Iberian decks from that period. It kept the four Latin suits of cups, coins, clubs, and swords along with the three face cards of knave, knight, and king. In 1633, the Tokugawa shogunate banned these cards, forcing Japanese manufacturers to radically redesign their cards. As a result of Japan’s isolationist Sakoku policy, karuta would develop separately from the rest of the world. The Unsun karuta deck developed in the late 17th century. It had five suits of 15 ranks each for a total of 75 cards. Six of the ranks were face cards. The Portuguese deck used to have dragons on their aces. The Unsun karuta made the aces and dragons separate cards. These dragon cards acted as wild cards.

In the next posts, we’ll talk more about karuta, its rules and varieties.


1. Karuta. Wikipedia.

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