Hanafuda cards have a unique history that stems from Western influence, gambling, and breaking the law. In these next few posts I hope to share some of the knowledge I’ve acquired from the research I’ve done, and also link you to some articles that I love regarding it. So in this first post I’m going to go into the birth of Hanafuda.
Prior to Portugal’s arrival in Japan in 1543, playing cards weren’t cards at all and were primarily utilized by nobility. Awase games were a matching game of word and image association. “Mono no awase” or a ‘matching of things’ would involve painted images of, well, things ranging from scenes from famous writing (uta-awase), flowers or other imagery
(e-awase) etc . Kai-Awase or when these images were painted on the inside of shells became the most popular and remain popular even today, often played on New Year’s or used for educational games. The earliest I can find for the birth of this game is the 9th century, however many of the sets found in museums are from the Edo period in the 18th century, where it seems this game was at its height of popularity. Due to the subject matter of the game and it requiring a more educated player, these games were extremely popular with nobility and less accessible to the average person.
Fast forward from the 9th century to 1543 and the arrival of Portugal in Japan, many things came with this including weapons, slavery, and religion. But another smaller thing came and helped shaped gaming history. The ships that brought the Portuguese also brought their popular Carta, of playing cards, a 48 card deck used to play many trick taking games and the very popular game Ombre. These games were easy to learn, the decks were convenient in size, and they were very easy to turn into gambling games, they also were the introduction of suits to the Japanese playing card world. This appealed to the masses far more than the earlier Awase games and spread quickly.
However in 1633, Japan closed its borders to foreigners and foreign influence, this resulted in a ban on the Portuguese Carta (now called Karuta). Around this time in the 17th century, Kai-Awase was translated into a card form, while there is no proof of connection that I can find, I can’t help but wonder if this was an attempt to make them more accessible and popular with the common people. Western playing cards were banned, but playing cards in general were not. In addition to this private gambling was banned by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1648 limiting the games people knew and creating a bit of a gambling underworld (by bit a mean a large one but this will be in part 2). So between 1633 and 1886 many decks were created, fully illustrated and games utilizing them were created as well. These decks tried to hide their Portuguese influence by being more illustrative and abstract (this style became known as Mekuri Karuta). But none of these lasted long before they were busted for gambling and subsequently banned. For all you playing card collectors here are some of the games that came to life during this period:
Thanks for joining me for part one! Part two is going to focus on the gambling side that helped create these cards.
Please let me know if you know of other cards or history involving these cards, I love learning more! Also please let me know if I’ve messed something up, this has all come from what I remember from my research and from many different sources.
See you next week!