The World of Playing Cards Logo

Playing cards have been with us since the 14th century, when they first entered popular culture. Over the centuries packs of cards, in all shapes and sizes, have been used for games, gambling, education, conjuring, advertising, fortune telling, political messages or the portrayal of national or ethnic identity. All over the world, whatever language is spoken, their significance is universal. Their popularity is also due to the imaginative artwork and graphic design which is sometimes overlooked, and the “then & now” of how things have changed.

Akahachi

After Mekuri games such as Unsun Karuta and Tenshô Karuta were banned by the authorities, especially if played with foreign cards, their appearance was disguised.

‘Akahachi’ or ‘Red Eight’ 赤八

Manufactured by Nintendo, Japan

Although modelled on Portuguese cards taken into the country during the mid 16th century, these images give an idea of the general incomprehensibility of Japanese Mekuri cards.

The court cards have become abstract forms with almost no visible indication of what suit they belong to. The idea was to disguise their appearance after Mekuri games such as Unsun Karuta and Tenshô Karuta were banned by the authorities, especially if played with foreign cards. However, on some cards, one can see printed outlines peeping through the masses of paint, forming faces, etc. The famous “dragons” (Aces) are now only vague shapes of paint, having lost all connection with their original models. Another feature is the silver overprints on some of the cards, perhaps to make them more visible in dimly lit rooms: note the 6 of batons in particular, which has 壽 (longevity) on it.   Images and notes courtesy Anthony Lee (visit his blog →).

‘Akahachi’ or ‘Red Eight’ manufactured by Nintendo, Japan

Above: top row (batons): King, Knight, Knave, 2, 6, Ace. Second row (swords): King, Knight, Knave, 9, 2, Ace. The 2 of Swords has a Buddha. Third row (cups): Ace, 6, 9, Knave, Knight, King. The Knight preserves the vague form of a man astride a horse; four legs support the abstract figure. Fourth row (Coins) Ace, 6, 4, Knave, Knight, King. It is debatable whether the Ace retains any resemblance to a dragon. Images and notes courtesy Anthony Lee (visit his blog).

See also:  KabufudaKurofudaMefudaJapanese Flower cards.

avatar

By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

View Articles

Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996.

Recommended

Japanese Kurofuda 黑札

Japanese Kurofuda 黑札

The name means “Black cards”, which is especially true of you look at the suit of batons. The horse's legs can be recognised on the Cavaliers.

Akahachi

Akahachi

After Mekuri games such as Unsun Karuta and Tenshô Karuta were banned by the authorities, especially if played with foreign cards, their appearance was disguised.

Tensho Mekuri - Japan

Tensho Mekuri - Japan

Tensho Mekuri cards hand-made by Patricia Kirk, 2003