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Playing with Flowers in Cards: Hanafuda

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

Hanafuda (花札) are Japanese playing cards that are used to play a number of games. The name comes from two Japanese words hana (花) which means flowers and fuda (札) which can mean cards. Some call it “flower cards” in English. The name also refers to games played with those cards.

A traditional Hanafuda deck of cards has 48 cards divided into 12 suits – one for every month. The four cards from each month share a common Japanese nature-inspired theme, whether it is cherry blossoms in March or maple leaves in October. Modern deck makers have taken some liberties with the traditional illustrations, and these days’ modern Hanafuda decks use a wide variety of animation styles, and even incorporate non-traditional characters like Napoleon and Mario.

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The colorful cards of Hanafuda. (Photo by Toshiyuki IMAI on Flickr)

Hanafuda Origin

The very first playing cards appeared in central Asia in the 9th century. It didn’t take long for trade to carry these cards the short distance to the islands of Japan. Though a traditional Hanafuda deck is distinctly Japanese in appearance, the overtly Japanese illustrations conceal an important Western influence. Hanafuda’s most obvious predecessor is actually the Portuguese Hombre deck, which was the first 48-card deck to appear in Japan. Portuguese traders and missionaries arrived in Japan in the 16th century, and were quick to invite the locals to participate in their card games.

Hanafuda Cards

hanafuda cards

The 48 cards of Hanafuda. Starting from the right, the cards are arranged from January to December. (Photo by 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia on Flickr)

 Hanafuda Cards List

Month Flower Cards
January Matsu(松, pine) Pine with Crane,
Red-lettered Tanzaku,
Plain Pine (2)
February Ume(梅, plum blossom) Plum with Nightingale,
Red-lettered Tanzaku,
Plain Plum (2)each
March Sakura(桜, cherry blossom) Cherry with Curtain,
Red-lettered Tanzaku,
Plain Cherry (2)
April Fuji(藤, wisteria) Wisteria with Cuckoo,
Solid Red Tanzaku,
Plain Wisteria (2)
May Ayame(菖蒲, iris) Iris with Bridge,
Solid Red Tanzaku,
Plain Iris (2)
June Botan(牡丹, peony) Peony with Butterfly,
Solid Blue Tanzaku,
Plain Peony (2)
July Hagi(萩, bush clover) Clover with Wild Boar,
Solid Red Tanzaku,
Plain Clover (2)
August Susuki(薄, Susuki grass/Pampas) Pampas with Full Moon,
Pampas with Geese,
Plain Pampas (2)
September Kiku(菊, chrysanthemum) Chrysanthemum with Sake Cup,
Solid Blue Tanzaku,
Plain Chrysanthemum (2)
October Momiji(紅葉, maple) Maple with Deer,
Solid Blue Tanzaku,
Plain Maple (2)
November Yanagi(柳, willow) Willow with Poet,
Willow with Swallow,
Willow with Solid Red Tanzaku,
Rain and Lightning
December Kiri(桐, paulownia) Paulownia with Phoenix,
Plain Paulownia (3)

Hanafuda on Popular Culture

Though the origins of the Hanafuda deck can be traced to ancient times, the influence of the flower cards can be seen in several modern pop culture references. Hanafuda is the source of several of the Japan’s most popular card games. It should come as no surprise then that these cards are largely responsible for funding one of today’s most successful game companies. Hanafuda decks were the very first product offered by the now-famous video game maker Nintendo. At the end of the 19th century, the Nintendo Corporation was founded for the sole purpose of producing hand-painted Hanafuda decks. This would be their primary source of income for nearly a hundred years.

Today, Hanafuda-based games remain popular in Japan and have extended to neighboring countries like South Korea and even further to the Polynesian islands that Japan once occupied.

We’ll learn more about Hanafuda and how to play them in our next post.

References:

1. Hanafuda. Wikipedia.

2. History of Hanafuda – Hanafuda.com

3. Featured Image from AC-Illust

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