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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.

Japanese Women

Japanese Women playing cards in an idealised and erotic style by Keiichi Takasawa (1914-1984)

Japanese Women in idealised and quasi-erotic style by Keiichi Takasawa (1914-1984) on playing cards manufactured by Angel Playing Cards Co Ltd, Japan. The ladies are in demure poses and a few are not quite fully dressed. Most of the images appear to depict the same model.

Above: Japanese playing cards with erotic artwork by Keiichi Takasawa (1914-1984), manufactured by Angel Playing Cards Co Ltd, Japan. 52 cards plus 3 jokers. The extra card appears to give the main dates from the artist's biography in Japanese script. Images courtesy Rex Pitts.

Keiichi Takasawa was born in Gunma Prefecture in 1914. In 1936 he attended Nihon University and later studied with Tsuguharu Fujita (a strong influence). During the war Keiichi worked as a war reporter. He did many illustrations and covers for women’s magazines, music record covers, etc. He also produced many ‘nikushitsu’ paintings of ‘bijin-ga’ (beautiful women) and the best of these were often published as woodblock prints. His bijin-ga prints always depicted the same slender-necked beauty (who may have been his wife), often in erotic poses. He usually signed his name using both Japanese kanji and Roman script, and this can be seen on the back of the cards.