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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 Playing Cards

Japanese playing cards include: 'Awase' or 'matching pairs' cards and Portuguese or Spanish-derived 'Dragon' type cards.

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.

Yomifuda cards with text of a poem and image of the poet

Above: Yomifuda cards with two lines of the text from a poem and an image of the poet who composed it. These form part of a particular kind of matching game called “Uta Garuta” which is basically a poetry anthology (the Hyakunin Isshu, or 百人一首), transposed onto cards. The game actually consists of a pair of decks, the Yomifuda, and Torifuda, giving a total of a hundred short poems of five lines, called Waka (和歌).  Images courtesy Anthony Lee.

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.

Unsun karuta, c.1780       Tensho Mekuri
        Tensho Mekuri

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

Above: cards by Gilis van den Bogarde, Antwerp 1567. These had a major influence on several styles of Japanese playing cards, after cards were introduced by European merchants  more

Japan Playing Card Museum

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.


Flower Cards by Nintendo, Japan, 2008

Above: December (the imperial Japanese plant kiri), June (with blood-red peonies over one of which two yellow butterflies are hovering) and May (blue Iris) cards from a set of ‘Flower Cards’ manufactured by Nintendo, Japan, 2008

Japanese Flower Cards or Hana Fuda are a third type, or intermediary between the first two types:

“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...”  Stewart Culin: The Origin of Playing Cards, 1895

Hanafunda cards are somewhat more rigid than western cards in that they are made of a stiff cardboard that has been lacquered.


Game of Playing-cards, Japanese post card

Above: Japanese post card titled "Game of Playing-cards"

Hiroshige Ukiyo-e playing cards

Above: Hiroshige Ukiyo-e playing cards

Utamaro Ukiyo-e

Above: “Utamaro Ukiyo-e” playing cards manufactured by Angel Playing Cards Co. Ltd

Japanese Women

Above: “Japanese Women” playing cards manufactured by Angel Playing Cards Co. Ltd

Roaring Twenties

Above: “Roaring Twenties” playing cards manufactured by Angel Playing Cards Co. Ltd

Dragon fanning cards

Above: Dragon fanning cards

Durara!! anime playing cards, 2010

Above: Durara!! anime playing cards, 2010.

One Piece Hanafuda King published by Beverly Enterprises Inc, Tokyo, 2010

Above: One Piece Hanafuda King card set published by Beverly Enterprises Inc, Tokyo, 2010.

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.

Black & White Whisky by Nintendo

Above: Black & White Whisky playing cards by Nintendo, 1960s

Akadama Honey Wine, c.1970

Above: Suntory Akadama Honey Wine playing cards manufactured by Nintendo, c.1970

“Tactics Supranational” men's grooming playing cards manufactured by Nintendo, c.1979

Above: “Tactics Supranational” men's grooming playing cards manufactured by Nintendo, c.1980

Ainu playing cards by Nintendo, 1979

Above: Ainu playing cards by Nintendo, 1979

Advertising deck for Mos Burger, Japan, 2015

Above: advertising deck for Mos Burger, Japan, 2015.

See also: Nintendo Mishief CatAngel Shapely

Japanese Dancing Woman cigarette card published by W.S. Kimball & Co

Above: Japanese Dancing Woman cigarette card published by W.S. Kimball & Co, USA, 1889

Above: Unsun Karuta

Above: ‘Akahachi’ or ‘Red Eight’ 赤八 Manufactured by Nintendo, Japan

Above: Japanese Kurofuda 黑札

Above: Kabufuda playing cards manufactured by Nintendo, Japan

Above: Komaru 小丸

Above: Taro Okamoto Playing Cards, 1977

Mexican-Aztec themed playing cards made in Japan by Nintendo

Above: Mexican-Aztec themed playing cards made in Japan by Nintendo

Above: Nintendo Mario playing cards

Above: Nippon Beer playing cards by Nintendo

Above: Hanafuda cards by Universal Playing Card Co., Japan

Above: Hello Kitty playing cards by Sanrio, 2013

Above: Monkichi playing cards by Sanrio, 2013

Round the World card game published by Pepys, 1961

Above: Japanese themed card from Round the World card game.

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

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

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Unsun Karuta うんすんかるた Japan c.1780.

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Japanese Playing Cards

Japanese Playing Cards

Japanese playing cards include: 'Awase' or 'matching pairs' cards and Portuguese or Spanish-derived 'Dragon' type cards.