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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.

Uta Garuta

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

... a traditional & educational card game of 100 poems

These cards are basically a poetry anthology (the Hyakunin Isshu, or 百人一首), transposed onto cards. The anthology, or the complete set, consists of a hundred short poems of five lines, called Waka (和歌). The set actually consists of a pair of decks, the ‘Yomifuda’ and ‘Torifuda’. The Yomifuda bear the text of the poem, and an image of the poet who composed it. The Torifuda by contrast only carry the last two lines of the poem. Both decks consist of a hundred cards, so in total there are 200 cards in a whole set.  • See also: wikipedia →

Japanese Yomifuda cards Japanese Torifuda cards Japanese Torifuda cards

Above: the objective of the games played with these cards is matching the Yomifuda (above) with the Torifuda (right).

Bearing that in mind, notice one unusual feature of the deck: the Torifuda are made of wood. The Torifuda are usually made out of the same thick cardstock as the Yomifuda (see below), but in this deck, properly known as “Ita Karuta”, the Torifuda are made of thick ( 1/2 cm) slats of wood, roughly the same size as the Yomifuda. Also note the large initial letter on the cards, which helps in their identification.

A set of Torifuda cards made from cardboard is shown beneath. The characters are written in a less cursive style of writing. Although they may be more legible, they are perhaps less artistic.

Images and notes courtesy Anthony Lee (anthonylesq.blogspot.com).


Japanese Yomifuda cards

Above: hand-painted cards on silk, Japan 17/18th Century? Image courtesy Dan Dragojevich.

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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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