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Symbolism in the Cards

During the Edo period in Japanese history (1603 - 1868), the government was very strict. Anyone who criticized the government, or was seen to be causing any kind of trouble was punished severely. Artists and authors tended to hide their opinions with puns, and homophones—words that sound the same with different meanings. Poems can often have two or three different meanings depending on the knowledge and skills of the writers, and the readers.

For example, hana in Japanese can mean either flower or nose. So, Hanafuda can be read as “flower-cards” or “nose-cards.” When Hanafuda cards were banned by the government, a person might go into a shop that sold the cards under the table and tap his nose to indicate he wanted to buy some cards. As a result, the tengu, or long nose goblin, is a popular mascot for Hanafuda cards.

Hanafuda cards are decorated with popular themes in Japanese culture. If you look closely at many traditionally decorated Japanese items you will often see the same themes and motifs. Even though the cards were sometimes used for illegal gambling, they are very rich in culture and meaning. Hanafuda cards are like an alphabet that can help you to get a deeper understanding of the visual messages from Edo Japan. Below are explanations of some of the symbols in the cards. The explanations are organized by suits, and the months that they represent.


Calendars in the Edo Period

The classical names for the months were used with the solar-lunar calendar. Before 1873 the Japanese calendar was based on the Chinese solar-lunar calendar. This calendar took into account the movements of both the earth around the sun, and the moon around the earth. The two orbits do not match every year. A lunar month is about 29½ days, and there are about 12.3 lunar months in a solar year. Therefore, a very complicated system of long and short months was devised to keep every year about the same length. Every month started and ended with the new moon, with the full moon in the middle of the month. This was helpful for illiterate people. Anyone could get a good idea of the time of month by looking into the sky.

The start of the new year was also different. The new year began at the second new moon after the winter solstice. This means that the year actually began 3 to 7 weeks after the start of the modern new year. This date is still celebrated as Chinese New Year, even though the Chinese have also converted to the modern Gregorian calendar system.

Another difference from the modern calendar was that the week was ten days instead of seven. Each month was about three weeks. The concept of weekends is not something deeply rooted in Japanese culture.

The government of the Tokugawa Shogunate kept very strict control over the printing of calendars to keep everybody on the same date. Having an official calendar was very important because it was almost impossible for the common person to calculate the long and short months from year to year. Sometimes even whole months were added to the year.

The calendars were very important for telling farmers when to plant and harvest. They told people when religious festivals were. They also provide astrological information for the year. The Chinese astrological system has very specific lucky and unlucky dates for a variety of activities.



mutsuki Mutsuki: affection month

The name Mutsuki refers to the time of year for family and friends to come together and celebrate the new year. There wasn't much to do in the cold dark of winter besides spending time with those closest to you.

tsuru and matsu

Pine and Crane
Matsu ni Tsuru

January is represented by the tsuru (crane) and the matsu (pine). Both are symbols of long life and good luck. The pine tree is known to live for centuries, and never sheds its leaves. No matter how cold the winter, the pine tree stays green and alive.

The Red-crowned Cranes are sacred birds in both China and Japan. They are called the “bird of happiness” because their mating dance makes them appear to be jumping for joy as they leap into the air and float back down on outstretched wings. They also are said to mate for life, which makes them symbols of marital harmony.

The Japanese or Siberian Red-crowned Cranes are among the largest cranes in the world. They stand almost 5 feet tall, have a 6 foot wingspan, and weigh up to 30 lbs. Some saints are said to have ridden to heaven on the backs of these cranes. Although they have not been proven to live the legendary 1,000 years, they do live quite a long time. A Siberian crane was reported to have lived 83 years in captivity. They breed and spend the summer in Mongolia and Siberia. In the fall they migrate to Japan and Korea to spend the winter.



kisaragiKisaragi: changing clothes month

Before the invention of the Japanese phonetic alphabets of hiragana and katakana the Japanese used Chinese characters, kanji, both for their meaning, and as a substitute for a phonetic sound. A common example is the word “sushi” which is often written as sushi. The literal meaning of the Chinese characters is to “administer congratulations,” which has nothing to do with the food. However when read aloud, it means “sour tasting.” Sushi was originally fish pickled in a mash of fermented rice. The use of kanji, Chinese characters, phonetically is called “ateji.”


Plum Blossom & Nightingale
Ume ni Uguisu

The more common writing of February isKisaragi. The literal meaning of the kanji is “similar month,” but it can be read as “Kisaragi.” This is an example of ateji being used as a kind of shorthand, or abbreviation. Think of it like the way we use a.m. and p.m. instead of the Latin phrases ante meridiem and post meridiem.

The more proper writing of Kisaragi is Kisaragi, which means “wear more clothes.” The meaning is much clearer, but it involves more writing. February is traditionally still midwinter in Japan, and a good time to bundle up in warm clothes while you wait for spring to arrive.

February is represented by the ume (plum) blossom, which is the first of the flowers to bloom in the year. The plum blossom and nightingale are frequently shown together to symbolize the coming of spring.


Tanzaku hanging
in a plum tree

Hanging in the plum tree is a red strip of paper with writing on it. This is called a tanzaku or “small book.” Tanzaku probably originated some time in the Heian period (794 - 1185). The small strips of paper had poetry written on them, and they were bound together in anthologies. The modern word tazaku usually only refers to a single slip of paper. Tanzaku have a variety of uses, but they are traditionally for writing short poems. Another popular use is to write wishes on them and hang them from a temple tree in hopes that they will come true. Tanzaku appear on 9 different cards, three red tanzaku with writing, three blank red tanzaku, and three blank blue tanzaku.


yayoiYayoi: new life

Toshikuni kabuki actors

Kabuki actors under a sakura tree
in this 19th Century print by
Toshikuni. The lady seems to have
offended her samurai friend.

March is represented by the sakura (cherry) blossom. Although the plum is the first blossom of the year, the cherry tree marks the real beginning of spring, and new life. Cherry blossom viewing to welcome spring is popular in Japan. People would go to the parks and countyside to sit under the blossoming trees. Sometimes, a multi-colored curtain is put up to designate the sitting area for viewing. This was so that the elite did not have to look at their neighbors. Occasionally, sakura inspire writing poetry on tanzaku.


Curtain and Cherry Blossoms
Sakura ni Maku

The sakura blossom has very deep meaning for the Japanese. Buddhism is an integral part of Japanese culture. Buddhism teaches that nothing is eternal or unchanging. Everything eventually decays and disintegrates. A blossoming cherry tree is a beautiful sight, but it does not last very long. In a moment, as strong wind can strip a blossoming tree bare. The cherry blossom is a symbol of the brevity and uncertainty of life. Youth, pleasure, fame, and misfortune, all blossom and fade like the ephemeral cherry blossom. The cherry blossom is a reminder to focus on the present.


uzukiUzuki: deutzia flower month

The name for April, Uzuki, refers to the deutzia flower or unohana, a flowering shrub. This is a popular flower in Japan that signals the beginning of summer.

April is represented by the fuji (wisteria) blossom. In April and May, purple fuji blossoms hang from boughs in many gardens. The cuckoo and wisteria are often shown together as symbols of late spring and the beginning of summer. The cuckoo usually calls in the dark of summer nights. The call of the cuckoo is said to sound like someone calling, “return home.”

The Japanese cuckoo, or hototogisu, is often shown flying across the face of the moon. This image signifies honor and advancement in status, and refers to the story of the samurai Yorimasa. The story is told in the Tale of Heike about the battles between two warring clans at the end of the 12th century.

The Heike Emperor was plagued every night by a flying monster. After several nights of failed attempts to banish the monster, someone suggested that the samurai Yorimasa “is a man who could subdue a monster.”

Yorimasa was a distinguished samurai who had served with bravery and success in many battles, but had not gained the recognition or honors that he deserved. Yorimasa was already in his mid 40’s and had semi-retired to be a Buddhist monk when the monster appeared. He was not very interested in fighting any flying monsters, but he could not refuse an Imperial order.

Yorimasa stood bravely in the Imperial courtyard waiting for the monster with his bow and arrows. He armed himself with only two arrows. One for the monster, and in case he missed the monster, one for the man who nominated him for the job.

Fortunately, Yorimasa shot the monster out of the sky with one arrow. After the horrible monster was dead the Emperor rewarded Yorimasa with a special sword. As he was being awarded, a cuckoo flew overhead calling in the night. Yorimasa recited the following poem:

hototogisu and tsuki

na o mo kumoi ni
aguru ka na

yumihari tsuki no
iru ni makasete


The cuckoo's name soars,
its cadence resounding
in the realm of the clouds.

It was merely drawn forth
by the sinking crescent moon.

The first verse speaks of how he finally returned from retirement and achieved the great name and honor he deserved in the Imperial Palace or “realm of the clouds.” The second verse acknowledges that his greatness is only due to his service to the Emperor, symbolized by the moon. The second verse can also be read to mean, “the shot from my drawn bow was in the hands of fate.” Modesty is very important.


In this 19th Century woodblock print by Kunisada, Yorimasa supervises as his assistant finishes off the flying beast with a sword. Notice Yorimasa is still holding on to his second arrow.



satsukiSatsuki: rice shoot planting month

The name of the month refers to the time when rice seedlings are transplanted. When cultivating rice, the seeds are sown in a small field in the spring. When the seedlings have sprouted they are transferred to a flooded field where they will grow until they are harvested. The flooded fields not only provide water for the rice, but also control weeds and rats that can damage the young crops.

May is represented by the ayame (iris) blossom. The ayame represents virility and is often displayed on Boys’ Day, May 5th.

The 5-point card depicts the ayame alongside a bridge. This is a reference to a chapter from The Tale of Ise, a collection of poems from the 10th century Japan. The Tale of Ise is a very well known piece of Japanese literature.

The story is about a member of the Imperial Court in Kyoto who was assigned to a new post far to the East. He left his family behind in the Capital as he travelled on his long journey. Along the way, he and his companions lost their way.

They came to a place called yatsuhashi, or “eight bridges.” This was a swampy area where a large river split into eight smaller rivers. Each of the rivers was crossed by a bridge. The whole area was filled with blooming irises.

The court official was feeling rather sad, was lost, and missed his wife. The men stopped to rest, and the court official wrote the following poem:

iris and bridge

kitsutsu narenishi
tsuma shi areba
harubaru kinuru
tabi wo shi zo omou


I have a beloved wife
Familiar as the skirt
Of a well-worn robe
And so this distant jouneying
Fills my heart with grief

At first glance, the poem seems to have nothing to do with irises. However, the poem is an acrostic. The first Japanese letters of the Japanese poem spell out “ka-ki-tsu-ba-ta” which is the Japanese name for the species of iris that filled the marshes.

You may have noticed that the first Japanese letter of the fourth line is pronounced “ha” in the poem, and the “ba” in the acrostic. In modern Japanese, the hiragana “ha” is pronounced “ba” when dakuten are added to the letter. Dakuten looks like a quotation mark added to the top right of the hiragana letters. At the time the poem was written, the use of dakuten was optional. It was just assumed that people could read the proper pronunciation from the context of the words. In the same way, English speakers know how to pronounce the “c” in cat differently from the “c” in center.

The story had special significance to the lords of Edo Japan (1603 - 1868). At the time, the Tokugawa Shogun came up with a way to keep any rivals from starting a rebellion from their home provinces. He required every lord to spend part of the year in the Capitol, Edo (Tokyo), and part in their home province. When the lords returned home, their families were kept as hostages in Edo—a guarantee that they would stay loyal while away. Also, the additional expense of maintaining two households and traveling back and forth, prevented any rivals to the Shogun from becoming too powerful.



minazukiMinazuki: month of water

botan and cho

Butterfies and Peony
Botan ni Choo

The name for the month Mi-na-zuki is an example of ateji. The name Minazuki is made up of three Chinese characters: minazuki (water-not-moon). The middle character for “not” was often substituted as the ateji, or phonetic equivalent, for “na” which is the possessive article “of.” So Minazuki can be read as both “the month of water” and “the month without water.” June is usually toward the end of the spring rainy season. There is plenty of water, and the rice fields are all flooded. The name of the month could be refering to the flooded fields, or the end of the rain.

June is represented by the botan (peony) blossom, a beautiful flower native to China. in China and Japan the peony is a symbol of wealth, good fortune and prosperity. The peony is known for its medicinal properties, and large fragrant flowers. The peony is often shown with butterflies in Chinese and Japanese paintings. Peony flowers are full of nectar, and attract many insects.



fumizukiFumizuki: book month

The exact meaning of Fumizuki is somewhat obscure. Some think that in the lazy days of midsummer, between the planting and harvesting seasons, people had time to write and read letters and poetry. Another theory is that the month was originally Fumuzuki which means “swollen month,” referring to the swelling rice grains in the fields. This may be another case of ateji distorting the meaning of the name.


Wid Boar and Bush Clover
Hagi ni Inoshish

July is represented by the hagi (bush clover) and inoshishi (wild boar). The bush clover is related to the pea plant, and usually blooms in July through October. The hagi cards are sometimes called “red beans” in Hawaii. Wild boars are said to like to nest, or sleep, in the bush clover. Wild boars are one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, and are symbols of bravery and affection. However, to villagers in the mountains the boars can be dangerous pests that destroy crops and gardens.

As followers of Buddhism, the Japanese tended not to eat the meat of four legged animals. Fish and birds were acceptable meats to eat. This accounts for some of the unusual classifications of animals in Edo period Japan. Frogs and lizards were classified as insects, and rabbits were considered birds. Accordingly, the wild boar is sometimes referred to as yamakujira or mountain-whale, which made it a fish.

Sometimes the meat of wild boar was called botan (peony). The meat of deer was called momiji (maple leaf) and that of the horses was sakura (cherry blossoms). In this way the pious Buddhists could pretend to eat as vegetarians.



hazukiHazuki: leaf month

The name for August, Hazuki, refers to the changing seasons and the falling leaves. August features the suzuki (similar to pampas grass). Some players in Hawaii call the card with the harvest moon, “bozu” (slang for bald-headed). Tsukimi, or moon viewing, is the fall counterpart to cherry blossom viewing. Like the first yaku suggests both cherry blossom viewing and moon viewing are often accompanied by the drinking of sake, or rice wine. The traditional date for moon viewing is August 15th. In the old solar-lunar calendar the month started and ended with the new moon. The middle of the month would be the full moon. However, because the old calendar started about a month later than our modern calendars, the actual date is closer to September 15th which is nearer to the autumnal equinox.

suzuki and moon

The autumn moon is also known as the “harvest moon” or “hunter’s moon.” It is usually described as the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. That is, the full moon closest to when the day and night are the same length in the fall.

The full moon usually rises close to when the Sun is setting. When the Moon is full the Sun and Moon are on exactly opposite sides of the Earth. When the Moon is new, the Moon is on the same side of the Earth as the Sun, which is why we can't see it at night.


As the year progresses the length of days changes. Days are longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. In the winter the full moon rises after the sun has set. In the summer, the full moon rises before the sun has set. At the equinoxes the days and nights are exactly the same length. Consequently, the moon is rising in the east at exactly the same time the sun is setting in the west.

It is called the “harvest moon” or “hunter’s moon” because people were able to continue working into the night by the light of the full moon without any gap between the setting sun and the rising moon. You will notice that the sky of the moon card is red. This is because the moon is rising at sunset.

The card with wild geese shows the seasonal migration of birds. In the fall geese migrate from Siberia and Northern China to spend the winter in Japan.



nagatsukiNagatsuki: long month


The Imperial 16 petal
chrysanthemum crest


Sake Cup and Chrysanthemum
Kiku ni Sakazuki

Nagatsuki, or long month, marks the beginning of autumn when the nights begin to be longer than the days. September is represented by the kiku (chrysanthemum) blossom.

The 16 petal kiku is the symbol of the Emperor of Japan. The Emperor is said to be descended from Amaterasu, the Sun goddess. The large yellow blossoms of the chrysanthemum are a fitting symbol for the radiant sun.

The Chrysanthemum is also a symbol of longevity because of the long life of the blooms. There is a legend of a place in Japan called Chrysanthemum Mountain. It is said that if you drink from the stream where the petals of the chrysanthemum fall into the water you will be blessed with long life. The 5-point card depicts the kiku next to a stream with a sake (rice wine) cup. Inside the wine cup the character for “longevity” is written. It was a common tradition to sprinkle chrysanthemum petals in one's wine and drink them as a way to ensure long life and happiness.



kaminazukiKaminazuki: month of the gods

shika and momiji

Deer and Maple
Momiji ni Shika

In this month, all of the 8 million Shinto gods leave their provincial shrines to congregate at the Great Shrine in Izumo (Izumo Taisha)– the center of Shinto religion. Izumo is about 60 miles north of Hiroshima. Like the month of June (Mizunazuki), Kaminazuki (October) can be interpreted two ways. It can be read as the “month of gods” or “month without gods.” In this case, both readings can be correct whether you are in Izumo or not.

October is represented by the changing fall colors of the momiji (maple) leaves. Although, not technically a flower, the brilliant autumn red leaves of the maple tree are as colorful as any flower. Like many people around the world Japanese enjoy seeking out groves of maple trees turning hillsides brilliant hues of red and yellow. Momijigari is the word for maple leaf viewing.

The stag represents gentleness. Together with the red maple, they are a symbol of longevity.



shimotsukiShimotsuki: frost month


Willow and Swallow
Yanagi ni Tsubame

Ono no Tofu

Ono no Michikaze
(894–966 CE)

November is known as the yanagi (willow), or ame (rain) suit. The willow tree is a symbol of grace and strength. In China and Japan, the willow symbolizes the traits of an ideal woman. Geisha are often compared to the willow. The tsubame (swallow) is often shown with the willow. They are seen as good companions and are symbols of happiness and harmony. Swallows are often associated with spring, but there are species that migrate to spend the winter in Japan.

The other notable figure in the November suit is the man with an umbrella. This man is the famous Heian period calligrapher Ono no Toufuu. Ono no Michikaze is the more formal reading of his name. He is credited with creating a Japanese style of writing Chinese characters. Calligraphy in this case is more than just fancy writing. It was very important to have standard ways of writing, especially when using a writing system as complicated as Chinese.

A popular story arose in the Edo period about how he was feeling particularly hopeless one rainy day, and considered quitting his study of calligraphy. He stopped by a stream near a willow tree and saw a small frog trying to leap to a dangling willow branch. He watched the frog leap for the branch, but every time the wind would blow it just out of reach. Finally on the eighth attempt, the frog clung to the branch.



Ono no Tofu was inspired by the perseverance of the frog, and continued his career to become one of the most famous calligraphers in Japan. There are doubts that the story is true, but it is an inspiring tale nonetheless.

The gaji (lightning) card depicts the strong storms around this time of year. Typhoons, or hurricanes, usually arrive in Japan from September until November. The largest storms occur toward the end of the year. The gaji card is filled with lightning and rain. The black and red form the outline of a tornado, or waterspout. On the bottom is a large drum symbolizing thunder. On the top left are propellers symbolizing strong wind.



shiwasuShiwasu: priests run


Phoenix and Paulownia
Kiri ni Hooh

Shiwasu is the last of the old month names that is commonly used in modern Japan. Since the nation switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1873 the months are only known by a number—month-one, month-two, month-three etc. The end of the solar year and the beginning of the new year is one of the most important holidays in Japan. It is a very exciting and busy time for everybody, especially the priests. Every new year Japanese visit the Shinto and Buddhist temples to get their blessings for the new year. The last month of the year is marked by the rushing about of busy priests as they prepare for New Year's Day. If you are in Japan on New Year's Day it will seem like every person in Japan is at their local temple at the stroke of midnight. The Japanese look to the new year as a chance to shake off all the burdens of the previous year and get a fresh start.

The phoenix card is known in Hawaii as the tori (chicken) card. The phoenix is the symbol of righteousness and often connected with the empress. It is a representation of the mandate from heaven giving the Emperor the authority to rule. Legend says that only the kiri tree is beautiful enough for the phoenix to land on.

seal of Japanese government

Official seal of

the Japanese



December is represented by the kiri (paulownia) tree. The kiri is the official symbol of the Prime Minister of Japan, and the democratically elected system of government. This was the crest of the Minamoto family, the originators of the Shogun title. Minamoto was an honorary surname given to members of the Imperial family not in line for the throne. The name Minamoto is also sometimes referred to as Genji. The famous novel The Tale of Genji is about the Minamoto.

The crest with three paulownia leaves on the bottom and the blossoms on top numbering 5-7-5, was awarded by the Heian Emperor to Minamoto no Yoshiie (1039 - 1106). Lesser members of the Minamoto clan had a similar crest with the flowers on top numbering 3-5-3. One of the requirements for becoming Shogun was to be from the Minamoto. In other words, the Shogun had to be a blood relative of the Emperor.

Tokugawa family crest

family crest


Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543 - 1616) was the last Shogun to rule Japan. The Tokugawa government held all the political and military power during the Edo period. The Emperor was just a figurehead in the capital of Kyoto. All important decisions were made in Edo.

Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun by forging his ancestry to show that he was descended from the Minamoto. The Tokugawa government was always afraid of rebellion because of this. After 250 years the Emperor Meiji was finally able to regain power from the Tokugawa Shogunate.

At the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912) the Emperor Meiji took political control away from the Tokugawa. This was the beginning of modern Japan. He moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo and renamed it Tokyo (eastern capital). He gave political power to the lords and samurai that had helped restore the power of the Emperor. The paulownia crest is a symbol of democratic government legitimized by the Emperor, in the tradition of the Minamoto.

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