The World of Playing Cards Logo
Published July 03, 1996 Updated June 07, 2022

Japanese Playing Cards

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

Japan Angel Nintendo Dragons

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.

avatar

By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

View Articles

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.


Leave a Reply

Recommended

1980 Sanyo Ukiyo-E

Sanyo Ukiyo-E

Ukiyo-E deck for Sanyo Enterprise Co.

1969 Ethiopian Air Lines

Ethiopian Air Lines

Ethiopian Air Lines playing cards designed by Melles Habtezghi with courts wearing regional costumes, c.1969.

2010 One Piece Hana Fuda

One Piece Hana Fuda

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

DRRR!!

DRRR!!

DRRR!!, short for Durarara!!, is an anime adaptation of a Japanese light novel written by Ryohgo Narita.

2015 Mos Burger

Mos Burger

Advertising deck for Mos Burger, one of the largest hamburger chains in Japan, 2015.

2014 Dragon Fight

Dragon Fight

Dragon Fight card game by Playmobil ®, 2014.

1979 Ainu culture

Ainu culture

A terrific deck of cards made by Nintendo c.1979 with original designs on every card showing the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan.

2003 Nana Poker

Nana Poker

Every card carries a different cartoon image in the Manga style, expressing moods and emotions.

2009 Hello Kitty

Hello Kitty

Waddington’s “Hello Kitty” themed deck produced in 2009.

2016 Dragons Playing Cards by Robert Burke

Dragons Playing Cards by Robert Burke

A gorgeous deck of cards featuring the dragon art of Kerem Beyit and printed by the United States Playing Card Company.

Flutter Met St George

Flutter Met St George

‘St George and the Dragon’ game made by Chad Valley for Flutter Met Games, 1930s.

2013 Hello Kitty

Hello Kitty

“Hello Kitty” playing cards published by Sanrio, manufactured in China, 2013

2015 Earth Dragons and Other Rare Creatures

Earth Dragons and Other Rare Creatures

Jessica Feinberg, mostly known for her unique mythic paintings of nature, dragons, is a creator the Earth D​ragons and Other Rare Creatures playing cards.

1980 Roaring Twenties

Roaring Twenties

Roaring Twenties playing cards by Angel Playing Cards Co Ltd, Japan. 1980.

1980 Shapely

Shapely

“Shapely” non-standard adult playing cards manufactured by Angel Playing Cards Co., Japan, 1980

Black & White Whisky by Nintendo

Black & White Whisky by Nintendo

Whisky advertising playing cards manufactured by Nintendo Playing Cards Co Ltd for Dodwell & Co., 1960s.

1970 Akadama Honey Wine by Nintendo

Akadama Honey Wine by Nintendo

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

Utamaro “Ukiyo-e” playing cards

Utamaro “Ukiyo-e” playing cards

Utamaro Ukiyo-e playing cards showing woodblock prints of beautiful women.

Hiroshige Ukiyo-e playing cards

Hiroshige Ukiyo-e playing cards

“Hiroshige” playing cards drawn by Hiroshige Ando (1797-1858) at 53 stopoffs on the journey from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto.

Japanese Women

Japanese Women

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

Dragon Fanning Deck

Dragon Fanning Deck

This set of cards published by DP Group Ltd (Japan) allows the performer to create different fans

Portuguese pattern

Portuguese pattern

19th century Portuguese pattern, re-printed from original woodblocks.

Nintendo Mario Playing Cards

Nintendo Mario Playing Cards

Special cartoon playing cards designed to accompany Nintendo's Mario series of computer games.

Malta

Malta

The so-called ‘Dragon Cards’, with winged monsters on the four Aces, are an enigmatic aspect of early playing card history.

27: Cards at Strangers’ Hall, Norwich

27: Cards at Strangers’ Hall, Norwich

There is a very interesting collection of playing cards held at the Strangers' Hall Museum in Norwich.

1900 Japanesque

Japanesque

Goodall’s “Japanesque” brand was used for stationery products since around 1880 but these playing cards were added to the range in around 1900.

1977 Taro Okamoto

Taro Okamoto

The combination of shapes and colours in these playing cards creates a vibrant and eye-catching surreal effect.

Leopardo 777 made in Japan for Peru

Leopardo 777 made in Japan for Peru

Leopardo 777 playing cards manufactured in Japan for the Estanco de Naipes del Peru, 1960s.

Uta Garuta

Uta Garuta

These cards are basically a poetry anthology (the Hyakunin Isshu, or 百人一首), transposed onto cards.

Komaru  小丸

Komaru 小丸

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.

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.

Kabufuda

Kabufuda

Kabufuda playing cards manufactured by Nintendo, Japan

2008 Flower Cards

Flower Cards

Japanese Flower Cards (Hana Fuda) made by Nintendo, Japan, 2008.

1580 Francisco Flores

Francisco Flores

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.

1780 Unsun Karuta

Unsun Karuta

Unsun Karuta うんすんかるた Japan c.1780.

Japanese Playing Cards

Japanese Playing Cards

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

2003 Tensho Mekuri - Japan

Tensho Mekuri - Japan

Tensho Mekuri cards hand-made by Patricia Kirk, 2003

Hana Fuda - Japan

Hana Fuda - Japan

Hana Fuda playing cards hand-made by Patricia Kirk, 2003

1880 Portuguese Type Playing Cards made in Belgium

Portuguese Type Playing Cards made in Belgium

Portuguese type pack with ‘dragon’ aces made in Belgium by Mesmaekers Frères, Turnhout, c.1875-1900