What comes to your mind first when you hear the name Nintendo? A video game giant? Many people, even in Japan, don’t know that Nintendo started out as a card game company. It was founded in 1889, in Kyoto, for the specific purpose of producing Hanafuda Cards.
What are Hanafuda Cards? The name literally translates as ‘flower cards”. It is said that in the 16th century, the crew of a ship from Portugal carried a set of playing cards which was later developed into the Japanese card games called “Karuta”, the origin of Hanafuda. The Portuguese card games became extremely popular with the Japanese due to the fact that they were used for gambling. When Japan implemented a national isolation policy in 1635, foreign playing cards were banned. The Tokugawa Shogunate also made private gambling illegal. Over the next few decades, several new card games were created with different designs to avoid the restriction, and thus Hanafuda was born. At first, it was played only by the nobility, and then it was generally spread among the lower classes. However, its main use at that time was gambling, so Hanafuda was banned in the late 18th century. In the late 19th century、when the Meiji government lifted the ban, many kinds of Hanafuda Cards were made throughout Japan.
Unlike Western-style cards, the Hanafuda cards do not have numbers. Instead, the 48 cards in the deck use pictures of flowers and other beauties of nature. The deck is organized in 12 suits, one for each month of the year, and the types of plants represent the months in which they bloom in Japan such as chrysanthemum, plum blossoms, and pine trees. Some have a vertical ribbon or tanzaku, meaning “a strip of paper on which to write a short poem. Some of the card designs are quite beautiful, with things like deer under a maple tree, butterflies with a peony, or cherry blossoms over a curtain which symbolizes a cherry blossom viewing party. These colorful cards are smaller but thicker than Western-style cards, and Japanese players enjoy the smacking sound that the cards make when they are slapped together.
The main purpose is to match pictures and get points for completed picture combinations. There are many scoring version and games you can play with the deck, and some of them are family traditions.
Most Hanafuda games are based on a simple principle: each player in turn tries to match one of his cards with any of the ones on the table, thus capturing the pair. The match is made according to the twelve suits, so pine matches pine, plum will match plum, and so on.
Each of the cards has a given value, which may differ according to the different rules, though the highest cards are often the five “kou” (lights), while all non scoring “kasu” (trash) cards are always worthless. At the end of each game, the players count their score by adding up the individual points of the captured cards, and then adding any further points obtained by forming special combinations, called “yaku”.
It may take a while to remember the rules, but Hanafuda is a great way to spend some hours with friends when you are having a party, especially if you like Japanese art. Or if you don’t feel like playing, it’s just fun to look at the cards and remember the meaning of each card. Enjoy Hanafuda!