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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Japanese Card Game: Iroha Karuta

One traditional card game which some Japanese people still play over the New Year's holidays is karuta. The word "karuta" comes from the Portuguese word for playing cards, "carta". 

A karuta deck is divided into two sets of cards. One set is called yomifuda or "reading cards", and the other is called torifuda or "taking cards." You need at least three people to make a game of karuta, the reader and the competitors. 

The torifuda are spread out face up. The reader takes a card from the top of his yomifuda deck and reads it aloud to the players. The players immediately try to find the card that matches the reading. After all the cards have been taken, the winner is the player with the most cards.

There are two types of karuta game, "uta-karuta" and "iroha-karuta".

In "uta-karuta", popularly known as "hyakunin isshu", the reader reads the first two lines of a classical tanka (five line poem) and the players try to find the card with the last two lines written on it. To play that game you need to be familiar with the 100 poems that make up the card deck.

Iroha karuta are more accessible to the foreign student of Japanese as anyone who can read the hiragana can play. The yomifuda consist of a series of famous Japanese proverbs and the torifuda are illustrated with colourful drawings of the respective proverbs and have the initial kana in one corner of the card. Each letter of the hiragana syllabary has its own proverb.

I recently added a new iroha karuta deck to my site, the lively "Edo" set, evocative of a time in pre-industrial Japan when there was no concrete, no "bridges to nowhere" and all the men wore top knots and loin cloths.

The two proverbs shown in the photo on the right are:

  • Ino mo arukeba bou ni ataru. - A strolling dog will find a stick.
  • Nodo moto sugireba atsusa wasureru. - Once swallowed, heat forgotten.

David Hurley

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