Games that I played while growing up have a special place in my heart and none more so than the humble but elegant game of Hanafuda or flower cards. I loved competing with my grandparents in Hanafuda because the cards were visually stunning and mysteriously old-fashioned. Perhaps the biggest reason for my enthusiasm is that it is a game of chance rather than skill, and offered a rare opportunity to beat the grown ups.
Hanafuda is a set of beautiful Japanese playing cards adorned with plants and animals that became hugely popular in the Edo (1603-1867) period. It is thought to have originated from cards introduced by the Portuguese to Japan in the 16th century. In Japanese, card games are still referred to as Karuta (from the Portuguese word carta for cards) to this day.
Hanafuda is fascinating because the cards reveal many seasonal motifs and combination designs considered to be “harmonious” in Japanese culture. Similar motifs are portrayed in a wide range of crafts including ceramics, textiles and utensils used for tea ceremonies. So Hanafuda cards are helpful in identifying the elements in nature that are of important cultural value to the Japanese.
A set of Hanafuda consists of 48 cards in 12 suits. Each suit represents a month of the year and the corresponding seasons (except for November/willow and December/paulownia). The decorations on the cards are visual representations of the seasonal and natural associations that were developed from Japanese classical poetry (Waka).
For example, plum blossoms and the warbler for the second month’s suit is a major icon for the arrival of spring. The earliest reference to this pairing is found in the 7th to 8th century collection of Japanese poems called Manyoshu. “Like plum blossoms and warbler” is an expression used to mean a good relationship.
According to Haruo Shirane in his book “Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons”, all the suits’ images -with the exception of peony- are from classical poetry dating from the Heian (794 to 1185) period, and reflect urban commoners’ knowledge of the poetic and cultural associations of the months. The tradition of interpreting the four seasons in this highly codified manner began in the Heian court-based culture and became the model of elegance that is called kacho fugetsu (flower and bird, wind and moon).
The Edo pop culture is also reflected in the Hanafuda, most famously in the willow with calligrapher Ono-no-Tofu (894-966) card. The card portrays a well-known Japanese fable of Ono-no-Tofu and the frog. In this tale, young Tofu is taking a stroll by the stream in the rain when he notices a frog attempting to jump onto a branch of a willow tree. After failing many times, the frog succeeds and Tofu, inspired by the perseverance of the frog, worked harder and eventually became a noted calligrapher.
Around the time this willow and calligrapher design was born, a puppet drama known as Bunraku and later a Kabuki performance of Ono-no-Tofu Aoyagi Suzuri was performed that included a more politically inspired version of the Tofu and the frog fable. Many Ukiyoe prints were also produced with willow and Ono-no-Tofu themes.
Over four centuries, many regional designs and rules of Hanafuda cards came into existence. The most popular use of the cards was for gambling, so the authorities banned their use repeatedly because they viewed gambling as a vice that ultimately channeled money to criminal gangs. The last ban took place in the late Edo period, which was also around the same time that the current Hanafuda designs were perfected. This is why many mysteries still surround the origins of the designs of the cards.
For example, I could not find any convincing explanation as to what is portrayed in the odd looking “rain and lightning” card that is under the willow suit. It is odd that the willow and the swallow -which is a spring bird- are portrayed in the eleventh month, and paulownia that blooms in early summer was chosen for the twelfth month. In addition, one should bare in mind that craftspeople from the Edo period never seemed to do anything without some clever hidden meaning behind their work so the puzzle can be quite complex.
Hanafuda is entertainment from the ages enjoyed widely by families throughout Japan, and interestingly, they also have connections with contemporary hi-tech entertainment. About 120 years ago, when the Meiji government lifted the ban on Hanafuda, an entrepreneur called Yamauchi Fusajiro opened a Hanafuda shop in Kyoto. His cards became so popular that the brand name of his cards, Nintendo, became synonymous with Hanafuda. Nintendo eventually evolved to become today’s famous video game giant. So we Japanese can proudly say that we have been playing Nintendo for more then a century.