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For Karuta armour, see Karuta (Japanese armour).
Box of karuta

Karuta (かるた karuta?, from Portuguese carta ["card"])[1] is a Japanese card game. 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.

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.

Early Karuta[edit]

Playing cards were introduced to Japan by the Portuguese traders during the mid 16th century. These early decks were used for trick-taking games.

Tenshō Karuta[edit]

Reproduction of a Tenshō karuta set.

The first indigenous Japanese deck was the Tenshō karuta named after the Tenshō period (1573-1592).[2] 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.

Unsun Karuta[edit]

Reproduction of a Unsun karuta set.

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. The new Guru suit used circular whirls (mitsudomoe) as pips.

Varieties of Karuta[edit]

Usually, many localities will have their own version of karuta with local history and landmarks.

Jomo Karuta[edit]

Jomo Karuta (Japanese: 上毛かるた, jōmō karuta) is a variety of karuta which features history and famous locations in Gunma Prefecture. An English version has been produced and is sold in bookstores across Gunma.[citation needed]

Uta-garuta and Hyakunin Isshu[edit]

Main article: Uta-garuta
An example of a modern pair of Uta Garuta cards, where the torifuda is on the left and the yomifuda is on the right.

Uta Garuta (Japanese: 歌ガルタ, lit. 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 "Ogura Hyakunin Isshu" is the most popular subgenre for the uta garuta called Hyakunin Isshu (Japanese: 百人一首, lit. 100 people, 1 poem). 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[edit]

Main article: 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.[citation needed]

Iroha Garuta[edit]

Iroha Garuta (Japanese: 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. In addition to these there are several more modern card decks based on the Iroha Garuta pattern:

Obake karuta[edit]

Card from the Japanese game obake karuta (monster cards), c. early 19th century. Each card features a monster from Japanese mythology and a character from the hiragana syllabary.
Reproduction of a card from a deck of the late 19th century

Obake karuta is a Japanese card game. The game was created in the Edo period and remained popular through the 1910s or 1920s.[3] 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.[3] 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.

Obake karuta is an early example of the common Japanese fascination with classifying monsters and creating new ones. The game is one of the earliest attempts by Japanese companies to categorize legendary creatures, label them, define them, and subsequently market them. As such, it is a precursor to the Godzilla films of the 1950s and later. Even more closely, obake karuta resembles the Yu-Gi-Oh! or Pokémon Trading Card Game, which also involves collecting cards that represent fabulous creatures. In fact, many Pokémon were designed specifically after creatures from Japanese mythology.[3]

Hokkaido Hougen Karuta[edit]

Hokkaido Hougen Karuta (Japanese: 北海道方言かるた, lit. Hokkaido Dialect Cards) is the first of a series of Talking Karuta produced by Discovery Creative in Hokkaido Japan which help children and adults alike learn different words and phrases used on the northern island of Hokkaido. Unlike most karuta where a reader need to be present for the game to be played, Hokkaido Hougen Karuta includes a CD-ROM with the reading of the cards being read by a native of the Hokkaido dialect. Hokkaido Karuta has become a popular version of karuta all over Japan because it allows the player(s) to play and learn without the presence of a reader.

Kyo-Kotoba Karuta[edit]

Kyo-Kotoba Karuta (Japanese: 京ことばかるた, lit. Kyoto Word Cards) is a version of karuta using the Kyoto dialect. This karuta set was produced by Discovery Creative under the supervision of Osaka City University Professor Nakagawa Makoto. This also being part of the Talking Karuta series, the narrations were recorded by famous Japanese actress Itida Hiromi, an expert in the Kyoto dialect in Japan.

Doyo Karuta[edit]

Doyo Karuta (Japanese: 童謡かるた, lit. Nursery Rhyme Cards) is a version of karuta made of famous Japanese nursery rhymes sang to music to help young children learn the Japanese writing system called Hiragana. This version of karuta was created by Kumamoto Kenmin Television, a local television station located in the Kumamoto Prefecture of Japan who are also the creators of Kumamoto dialect karuta.


Kabufuda (Japanese: 株札) are cards used for gambling games such as Oicho-Kabu. They come in decks of 40 cards with designs representing the numbers 1 through 10. There are four cards for each number and the 10 is the only face card.


Hanafuda (Japanese: 花札, lit. flower cards) are Japanese cards with flower designs. Beginning in the early 19th century, they are still in use today with a deck of 48 cards having different pictures representing each of the 12 months.

In popular culture[edit]

Karuta was almost unknown outside of Japan until the release of the manga and anime series Chihayafuru.[citation needed] It portrays the story of a group of young people and their journey through the world of karuta.

The video game Tales of Graces features "Magic Carta" as a mini-game. The in-game cards feature characters from every prior game in the Tales series.

Kirby Super Star Ultra has Karuta as a mini-game. It was translated as "Kirby Card Swipe" in the English release.

In episode 303 of the anime series Bleach, they play a game of Karuta with cards based on other Bleach characters.

In episode 12 of the anime series Girlfriend Kari;, Shiina Kokomi's mother presents Iroha karuta cards as a symbol of Japanese New Year. She suggests that they play a game of Iroha karuta, and, although everyone agreed, they are never shown playing.

The Japanese culture and lifestyle television show Begin Japanology aired on NHK World featured a full episode on Karuta in 2010.

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ Asahi-net.or.jp
  2. ^ http://l-pollett.tripod.com/cards9.htm Early Japanese decks
  3. ^ a b c Pflugfelder, Gregory M. "Display Case 8: Monster Merchandise (II)". Godzilla Conquers the Globe: Japanese Movie Monsters in International Film Art. Accessed 11 March 2006.

External links[edit]