Some records indicate that Chinese and Korean cultural influences reached Japan as early as the 7th century AD and the origins of certain Japanese games can be traced to these influences. One such game was a matching game and the Japanese adaptation made use of hand painted pictures of natural objects on seashells.
The use of suit signs first came to Japan from Europe when Portuguese explorers reached Japan in 1542 or 1543 bringing their playing cards with them. These were soon followed by Spanish traders. Their cards were banned in a prohibition of 1648; however, they re-appeared in disguised forms and evolved into several variant types. Local versions of Portuguese cards with dragons on the Aces either depicted court figures in contemporary western costume or were the product of interpretations in local idiom. The small size of many Japanese cards is sometimes reckoned as due to European sailors trimming their cards to keep the edges sharp for play.
In general terms, Japanese playing cards are of two types: ‘Awase’ or ‘matching pairs’ cards and Portuguese or Spanish-derived ‘Dragon’ type cards. These have dragons on the aces and are believed to have originated in Spain, Italy or Portugal. There are several varieties of the latter type, including Mekuri or Tensho cards, Unsun Karuta, Akahachi, Kabufuda, Komaru and Mefuda. more here►
The very first playing cards that came to Japan in the latter half of the 16th century were known as Namban Carta: Resurrected after 450 Years►
“Belgium in the 16th century was a territory of the Spanish royal family, with a booming handicraft industry exporting products to Spain and Portugal. At that time, it was also a global centre of advanced woodblock printing, producing sophisticated products not found in Spain or Portugal. It is thus not surprising that the design of Belgian cards reflected the preferences of clients in Portugal, and that products marketed in Portugal travelled with traders all the way to Asia, specifically to the commercial hub of Batavia on the island of Java. [...] Nevertheless, it was highly likely that dragon cards made in Belgium had been brought into Japan and subsequently called Namban Carta” - Takashi Ebashi, Director of the Japan Karuta Cultural Center.
The playing-cards of Japan, the well-known hana-gamta or flower cards, have a similar ancestry to those of China. One card in each of the twelve suits, which are named after flowers corresponding with the twelve months, retains a device called a tanzaku, with its appropriate number in the series of months...
Hanafunda cards are somewhat more rigid than western cards in that they are made of a stiff cardboard that has been lacquered.
The Rise of Nintendo
In 1889, Fusajirô Yamauchi began manufacturing “Hanafuda” or “flower cards” under the brand name Nintendo Koppai. Cards were hand crafted using the bark from mulberry and mitsu-mata trees. Around 1902 the firm began producing Western style playing cards. Throughout the decades that followed, the Nintendo firm branched out into production of different kinds of toys, gaming, and entertainment products, culminating in increasingly complex electronic video games.
In 1951 the playing card distribution company became known as Nintendo Playing Cards Co. Ltd. (or Nintendo Karuta Co. Ltd in Japan). Nintendo still manufactures a small number of Hanafuda and Western style playing cards as well as the Pokemon trading card and collectible card game.
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Curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.
Ukiyo-E deck for Sanyo Enterprise Co.
Ethiopian Air Lines playing cards designed by Melles Habtezghi with courts wearing regional costumes, c.1969.
One Piece Hanafuda King card set published by Beverly Enterprises Inc, Tokyo, 2010
DRRR!!, short for Durarara!!, is an anime adaptation of a Japanese light novel written by Ryohgo Narita.
Advertising deck for Mos Burger, one of the largest hamburger chains in Japan, 2015.
Dragon Fight card game by Playmobil ®, 2014.
A terrific deck of cards made by Nintendo c.1979 with original designs on every card showing the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan.
Every card carries a different cartoon image in the Manga style, expressing moods and emotions.
Waddington’s “Hello Kitty” themed deck produced in 2009.
A gorgeous deck of cards featuring the dragon art of Kerem Beyit and printed by the United States Playing Card Company.
‘St George and the Dragon’ game made by Chad Valley for Flutter Met Games, 1930s.
“Hello Kitty” playing cards published by Sanrio, manufactured in China, 2013
Jessica Feinberg, mostly known for her unique mythic paintings of nature, dragons, is a creator the Earth Dragons and Other Rare Creatures playing cards.
Roaring Twenties playing cards by Angel Playing Cards Co Ltd, Japan. 1980.
“Shapely” non-standard adult playing cards manufactured by Angel Playing Cards Co., Japan, 1980
Whisky advertising playing cards manufactured by Nintendo Playing Cards Co Ltd for Dodwell & Co., 1960s.
Suntory Akadama Honey Wine playing cards manufactured by Nintendo, Japan, c.1970.
Utamaro Ukiyo-e playing cards showing woodblock prints of beautiful women.
“Hiroshige” playing cards drawn by Hiroshige Ando (1797-1858) at 53 stopoffs on the journey from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto.
Japanese Women playing cards in an idealised and erotic style by Keiichi Takasawa (1914-1984).
This set of cards published by DP Group Ltd (Japan) allows the performer to create different fans
19th century Portuguese pattern, re-printed from original woodblocks.
Special cartoon playing cards designed to accompany Nintendo's Mario series of computer games.
The so-called ‘Dragon Cards’, with winged monsters on the four Aces, are an enigmatic aspect of early playing card history.
There is a very interesting collection of playing cards held at the Strangers' Hall Museum in Norwich.
Goodall’s “Japanesque” brand was used for stationery products since around 1880 but these playing cards were added to the range in around 1900.
The combination of shapes and colours in these playing cards creates a vibrant and eye-catching surreal effect.
Leopardo 777 playing cards manufactured in Japan for the Estanco de Naipes del Peru, 1960s.
These cards are basically a poetry anthology (the Hyakunin Isshu, or 百人一首), transposed onto cards.
The usual composition appears to be a series of pips from 1-9, and a court card repeated 4 times. Some of the pips are decorated with silver overprints.
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.
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.
Kabufuda playing cards manufactured by Nintendo, Japan
Japanese Flower Cards (Hana Fuda) made by Nintendo, Japan, 2008.
Playing cards in this style have been discovered in various parts of the world, suggesting that they were exported or carried there by early explorers or merchants.
Unsun Karuta うんすんかるた Japan c.1780.
Japanese playing cards include: 'Awase' or 'matching pairs' cards and Portuguese or Spanish-derived 'Dragon' type cards.
Tensho Mekuri cards hand-made by Patricia Kirk, 2003
Hana Fuda playing cards hand-made by Patricia Kirk, 2003
Portuguese type pack with ‘dragon’ aces made in Belgium by Mesmaekers Frères, Turnhout, c.1875-1900