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The History of Playing Cards

Ming Dynasty playing card

Ming Dynasty
playing card

The earliest playing cards can be traced back to 9th century China during the Tang Dynasty. At this time, Japan was strongly influenced by Chinese imperial culture. The Japanese nobility adopted playing cards along with many other Chinese innovations. For a long time card games were something played only by some of the most educated elite.

About 700 years later, card games had spread westward from China to Europe and arrived again in Japan. Portuguese sailors introduced European gambling card games to Japan in the middle of the 16th century. Some point to the day when the Portuguese missionary Saint Francisco Xavier landed in Japan in the year 1549. Gambling with cards soon became very popular among the Japanese common people.

Playing Cards in Japan

Tokugawa Ieyasu

Tokugawa Ieyasu

Hanafuda cards came into being during the late Edo period of Japanese history (1603-1868). Before the Edo period, Japan had experienced decades of constant warfare. Regional lords fought constant battles for dominance. Although the Emperor of Japan officially ruled the country, he didn't always have the military power to enforce his will.

Military power was in the hands of the Shogun. The title of Shogun was given to the supreme general of the nation. The Shogun was in charge of keeping a unified Japan under the control of the Emperor. After decades of political and military maneuvering lord Tokugawa Ieyasu managed to conquer all his rivals and secure the title of Shogun from the Emperor. The Edo period begins when the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu takes absolute control of the country. He ruled from the town of Edo, which later grew to become Tokyo.

Italian playing cardJapanese karuta card

European carta
& Japanese karuta

For the next 250 years the nation of Japan was unified and at peace. The tradeoff was that Japan was under a military dictatorship, and cut off from the rest of the world. The Tokugawa family ran the government with Confucian harmony as its main goal. The Shogun did not tolerate anything that threatened the stability of the country. The Shogun threw out all the foreigners. In particular, Portuguese and Spanish missionaries were seen as spreading subversive ideas. Anything foreign was considered dangerous. Gambling with foreign playing cards was seen as especially dangerous. Only the Chinese, Koreans, and Dutch were allowed to trade with Japan, and only under the strict control of the Tokugawa government.

In response to the popularity of gambling with European cards, the Japanese government made all foreign playing cards illegal. Gamblers soon developed their own domestic versions of cards (called karuta from the Portuguese carta meaning card), which were subsequently banned. This cycle fueled the creation of new gambling card games with increasingly abstract designs to evade authorities. After about a century, most gamblers gave up card games; and the government gave up trying to ban them. While most of the games of that era have faded into obscurity, Hanafuda remains.

hanafuda card

Hanafuda cards are, in a way, the ultimate disguise. On the surface there are no signs of anything foreign about Hanafuda cards. They are all decorated with the most common themes in Japanese popular culture of the time.

Poetry Cards

Poetry cards
top: 1st part of poem
bottom: 2nd part of poem


However, there are still hints of the European origins of the playing cards in Hanafuda. You may have noticed that there are no yaku combinations with the cards from the November and December suits. The reason can be traced back to the most popular games of the Edo period. Oicho-Kabu was a game similar to bacaraat. Some of the original European decks have only 40 cards. So, many of the games developed at the time involved only 40 cards.

The game Oicho-Kabu is also the origin of the term for gangster in Japan, yakuza. The term yakuza means “loser.” Very disrespectful. In Oicho-Kabu the goal is to have your point total as close to 9 as possible. Like in Bacaraat any multiple of 10 is disregarded in your point total. So, a score of 19 would be a winning hand because 19-10=9. Yakuza literally means “eight nine three.” The term yakuza refers to a losing hand of 8+9+3 that equals 20, which is a bust.

Although Hanafuda cards originated from European cards, the designs and game play were influenced by other Japanese games. Before cards came to Japan, a popular matching game used clam shells. Each half of a clam shell is a unique match. Players would match pictures or poems written on the two halves of each shell. Only matching pairs of shells would fit together properly.

There is a similar card game where players match poetry. Half of a poem is written on one card, and the other half of the poem on another card. The cards with the second half of the poems are spread out on the floor. The cards for the first half of the poem are stacked in a pile next to a reader. The reader takes a card from the stack and recites the first line of poetry from the card. The other players scramble to find the card with the matching half of poetry on the floor.

Traditionally, Hanafuda cards do not have any symbols or numbers on them. This makes them difficult to gamble with, and may seem intimidating to players unfamiliar with the deck. Hanafuda cards are a distinctly Japanese design. The cards are decorated with unique images from nature, and popular Japanese themes. Each month in the year is represented with a blossoming flower. Some months also include animals and activities that mark the changing seasons.

Hanafuda in Hawai‘i

Japanese immigrants brought Hanafuda to Hawai‘i around the beginning of the 20th century. In Hawai‘i, the game was shared across many different cultures and nationalities on the islands. Plantation workers and neighbors would come together for a game of cards. Over time, Hawai‘i developed its own style of Hanafuda. Playing with Hanafuda cards continues to be a fun way to pass the time with friends and family.

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