One of the traditional games of the Japanese New Year is “Karuta”. The name Karuta comes from the Portuguese word “carta,” meaning “card.” Using cards with pictures and words on them, participants compete to find the picture cards that match the cards read out to them. The person with the most cards wins. The most traditional karuta is “iroha karuta”, in which 47 proverbs are used.

There is a waka Hyakunin Isshu based on a famous poetry collection chosen in the Heian period. It has been used as a New Year’s card since the Edo period (1603-1867), with many poems about love and seasonal topics. They read a poem and compete to find a card to match it. It is often held at schools at the beginning of the New Year because it is an opportunity to memorize famous waka songs.

Hanafuda appeared in the late 18th century. What stands out to me is that it is a hybrid of traditional Japanese and Western styles. Like the European Hombray cards, there are 48 cards, which can be divided into groups of four 12 times, but unlike the European cards, they are drawn with pictures rather than numbers.

The government’s relentless gambling ban has affected the popularity of card games, and flower cards have had a hard time catching on. However, a company was set up for the purpose of making flower cards. This is the same company that later took the world by storm with computer games, but it was not until later that the company made products other than playing cards. This company’s flower cards sold well, but they were mainly used for gambling. For this reason, Hanafuda has strong ties to the yakuza who run the gambling parlors, and many yakuza have tattoos with the motif of Hanafuda. This is why Hanafuda is still strongly rooted in the image of crime and the underworld even today.

The flower cards use cards that emphasize the beauty of nature without resembling the history of the gambling game; they depict seasonal plants such as pinecones, plums, cherry blossoms, wisteria, irises, peonies, bush clover, silver grass, chrysanthemum, maple, willow, and paulownia in December. If you play with flower cards, you need to remember what month each plant hits and know how it ranks with the other cards. In addition to the plants representing the moon, there are also cards with symbols such as regular cards (1), ribbon cards (5), animal cards (10), and bright cards (20). Despite such a system, in most games, the actual point value of the card is irrelevant.

Which card combination is available depends on the suit, and 10 of the 12 suits have ribbon cards, four of which are plain red regular ribbons. There is also a set of three blue ribbons (June, September and October) and three “poetry ribbons” with words on them (January, February and March). The meaning of ribbons varies from game to game, but you usually earn points when you collect a certain number of ribbons.