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Published July 03, 1996 Updated July 11, 2023

Unsun Karuta

Unsun Karuta うんすんかるた Japan c.1780.

1780 Japan Dragons Hand-Painted History Add to Collection

うんすんかるた

These cards have retained much of their original appearance to Portuguese “dragon cards” but over time local influences and traditions have localised the designs. The first copies of western-style playing cards were made in Japan during the Tenshou Era (1573~1591) and became known as Tenshou Karuta. Subsequently, in the Edo period, they were developed further into Unsun Karuta. While Tenshou Karuta had 48 cards, Unsun Karuta has 75 cards and more complicated rules. As Unsun Karuta gained popularity, the gambling potential of the game caused it to be banned. Believed to have entirely disappeared, it survived in the Hitoyoshi region in Kumamoto.

18th Century Hand-painted Unsun Karuta

Above: 30 cards from an 18th century hand-painted Unsun Karuta pack. The complete pack has 5 suits of 15 cards: Cups, Swords, Coins, Batons and Tomoe or Drums. Each suit has six court cards: Un (a god of good luck or, in one instance, Daruma, a Zen Buddhist); Sum (an enthroned Chinese official); Sota (a maid); Robai (a dragon which has been transferred from the Portuguese aces to the Japanese court); Kiri or Koshi (King or other enthroned person), and Uma (Cavalier or simply a horse). There are also numerals 9-1, the aces being represented simply by a single suit symbol without a dragon.


Whilst the “dragon cards” have been preserved in the deck along with an extended court, there are also aces with single suit symbols. Thus numerals 1-9, plus five court cards + dragon card in each of FIVE suits = 75 cards.

Unsun Karuta

A typical way of playing involves 8 players divided into 2 groups of 4 people who alternately perform trick-taking.


Further References (with thanks to Alex Concutelli for extra research)

Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto's Hidden Portuguese Card Game: Unsun Karuta

Mann, Sylvia: All Cards on the Table, Jonas Verlag/Deutsches Spielkarten-Museum, Leinfelden-Echterdingen, 1990

Japan Playing Card Museum: Unsun Karuta

Kyushu National Museum, Collection number A20

Above: Unsun Karuta, 17th century. The Portuguese were banned from visiting Japan in 1639, but it is believed that these cards were made around that time. Kyushu National Museum, Collection number A20

See Wikipedia for more information see here and Unsun Karuta and the Portuguese influence

A description of the rules of Unsun Karuta can be found here and here - usually the browser suggests to translate the page.

Link to Nippon Kichi: Unsun-karuta card game

Link to Hitoyoshi tourist region, the only place where Unsun Karuta was not banned

Keizaburo Yamaguchi (1928-2012): Unsun Karuta: An Outline History of Unsun-Karuta: (Old Japanese Playing Card of Portuguese Origin), published by Tekisui Art Museum at the Yamaguchi Culture Hall, 1967. Keizaburo Yamaguchi was a Japanese art historian; here he relates how playing cards were imported into Japan in the seventeenth-century, and then explains how and where these cards were adapted by the Japanese and how a popular social movement grew up around them.

Unsun Karuta

Above: image from Keizaburo Yamaguchi book.

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By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

Founder 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.


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