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Karuta: Traditional Japanese Playing Cards – Variations

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

Mastering karuta requires a combination of quick reflexes and memorization. And for the Japanese language learner, karuta also offers the perfect blend of procrastination and productivity, a way to work and play at same time.

2 Types of Cards in Karuta

The standard way to play requires a “reader” or “caller” and two or more players. In any karuta deck there are two types of cards:

yomifuda (読み札, reading cards)


torifuda (取り札, cards to be picked up)


Each yomifuda has a corresponding torifuda.


Gameplay is simple:

  1. Spread all the torifuda face up on a flat surface between the players.
  2. The “reader” randomly draws a yomifuda from the deck and reads it aloud.
  3. Players race each other to determine which torifuda corresponds to the yomifuda clue and then to touch/grab/claim the correct card first.
  4. Repeat steps two and three until no cards remain.
  5. Player with the most cards win!

Karuta Variations

There are also many variations of karuta. Here are some of them:

Uta-garuta and Hyakunin Isshu

Uta Garuta (歌ガルタ, poem cards) is a card game in which 100 waka poems are written on two sets of cards that make up one full deck. Players have to quickly match the cards to complete a poem and recite it. The Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首, lit. 100 people, 1 poem) is the most popular subgenre for the uta-garuta. Compiled in the early 13th century by the poet Fujiwara no Teika, this game contains one hundred poems, with each one written by a different famous poet.

Competitive Karuta

Competitive karuta is played with uta-garuta cards with competitions on various levels. The Japan national championship tournament is held every January at Omi shrine (a Shinto Shrine) in Ōtsu, Shiga.

In competitive karuta, 50 randomly selected torifuda are split 50-50 between two competitors. Before the game begins, each player arranges his or her 25 cards face-up on his or her territory in any one of a number of strategic positions. A fifteen minute period is provided in order to memorize the position of his or her own (and his or her opponent’s) cards and a two minute period is reserved for players to practice striking at cards. When time’s up, the reader opens the game by chanting a poem that doesn’t appear in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu deck. After that, the action starts–the reader sings out the first lines of the first poem while the players scramble to identify and then claim the torifuda card containing that poem’s last few lines.

Iroha Garuta

Iroha Garuta (いろはがるた) is an easier-to-understand card for children, similar to Uta-garuta and Hyakunin Isshu. Representing the 47 syllables of the iroha syllabary and adds kyo (京, “capital”) for the 48th (since the syllable -n ん can never start any word or phrase). A set consists of 48 proverbs each starting with a different syllable and another set of cards expressing a proverb as shown in the picture. There are 3 standard Iroha Garuta variants; Kamigata Iroha, Edo Iroha and Owari Iroha.

Obake Karuta

The game was created in the Edo period and remained popular through the 1910s or 1920s. Each playing card in the deck features a character from the hiragana syllabary and a creature from Japanese mythology; in fact, obake karuta means ghost cards or monster cards. Success requires knowledge of Japanese mythology and folklore as players attempt to collect cards that match clues read by a referee. The player who accumulates the most cards by the end of the game wins.

In our next post, we will feature more of karuta variations and karuta in popular culture.


1. Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Karuta!. Tofogu.

2. Karuta. Wikipedia.

3. Featured image and other images are from Wikimedia Commons.

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