Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Kyoto Hanafuda

These original design Kyoto hanafuda cards show famous places and seasonal scenes from Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital.  Places shown on these Hanafuda include Toji Temple, Mount Daimonji and other famous locales!

Family Tree of Japanese Playing Cards

During the 18th century a new scheme of play was created and its variants were called Mekuri, i.e. 'the turning (of cards)'. These games also used 48 card decks, four suits of 12 cards each, with the same values and courts as the original Portuguese ones (although the suit pips and illustrations were considerably stylized and the aces and court cards were almost hidden under heavy strokes of black and red paint). The result was a different look from region to region but constant within the same area. This marked the birth of several regional variants, identical in composition but graphically different.  Mekuri games grew popular but around 1790 a further law prohibited them because they were used in gambling.

A card game called Kabu took their place: its regional patterns consisted of either 40 or 48 cards (four sets of only one suit, taken from Mekuri patterns). Not long after, this was declared illegal.  The bans did not prevent Japanese players from gambling. The cards called Dôsai karuta and Mubeyama karuta were conceived in order to mimic the ones played with by children (i.e. Iroha karuta and Uta karuta respectively), whose use was allowed in order to deceive the inspectors. However, some other players realised that these games should have been more deeply altered both to avoid a further ban and to follow more closely the cultural tradition of the country. This feeling led to a revival of the old matching game patterns. During the first half of the 19th century, the group known as flower cards or Hanakaruta (later renamed Hanafuda) was born.

These decks were still made of 48 cards divided into families or suits  (as the ones used for Mekuri and Kabu games) but their illustrations which featured traditional flowers and animals, reminiscent of the early Japanese playing shells were so different from the Portuguese derived cards that they proved an effective disguise for the strict government censors.

Single suited cards though were never completely abandoned and sometime during the late 1800's a further variety called Tehonbiki sprang from this group.  In 1885 all bans on playing cards were removed.

During the Japanese invasion (and subsequent occupation) of Korea (1905-45), Hanafuda cards were taken into the country where they became popular with the local name of Hwatu, developing some slight differences from the Japanese original version although they are modelled on Japan's most common pattern (called Hachihachibana).

Tuesday, 8 May 2012


Echigo is a former province of Japan that now forms the majority of Niigata prefecture. The main features of this pattern (which are modelled on pre 1868 decks) are an extensive use of silver and gold details over the main illustrations and the presence of short poems (Tanka) added to Kasu cards belonging to the Matsu (Pine), Ume (Plum), Fuji (Wisteria), Ayame (Iris), Susuki (Pampas grass) and Momiji (Maple) suits. 

The Tanka are divided into two halves, featured on each of the two Kasu cards. This graphic element, which has nothing to do with the gambling game was probably conceived as an attempt of disguising Hanafuda cards as Uta Karuta or 'Poet Cards' since the latter were not prohibited.

'Ayame' - Iris
'Matsu' - Pine

Shikishima Hanafuda

Takumi Itô is a contemporary artist active since the mid 1940's. In 2004 she created a series of 48 woodblock prints for the Hanafuda subjects, which she entitled after an old name that the Japanese used to refer to their own homeland, Shikishima, roughly meaning 'the lovely island'. The illustrations underline the environmental details making them more eye-catching than in standard editions yet without turning them glamorous, thanks to the choice of sober colours and the naive finish of the woodblock technique.

This deck comes with two extra cards, one with a small Oni or Demon, the other featuring a further Ribbon whose text is the name of the firm that released the Shikishima edition (Okuno Karuta).

'Momiji' - Maple

The extra cards

Meiji era Hanafuda by Ôishi

This special edition produced by Ôishi, is a replica of an original deck dating back to the Meiji era (1864-1912), that one century earlier had been commissioned to the same manufacturer by Itô Hirofumi (1841-1909), the first Japanese Prime Minister. He was a lover of figurative art of his own country and had a particular interest for the typical flower card illustrations.
During the 19th century despite some graphic details that were still partly subject to changes, the design of the local cards had gradually reached a certain stability and the basic elements had become standard: a Crane on the first card of Pine, a Bush Warbler on the same card of Plum, the Curtain on Cherry and so on (including the ones with red and blue Ribbons). The edition that Hirofumi had made by Ôishi could be described today as 'luxury'. The maker kept one copy for himself and from this specimen in 1991, a faithful replica was obtained called Sôridaijin no Hana-karuta (Prime Minister's Flower cards) in honour of the important client.
A curious fact concerning the Prime Minister is that during a state visit in the United States, he became aware that a tax was imposed on playing card decks. Up to those days this had only been a Western custom. When he returned home in order to improve the country's financial situation (which had been seriously affected by the war against Russia in 1904-5), he introduced the tax in Japan but within a few years this caused a dramatic decrease of playing card sales and several makers even had to close down their workshops.


Golden Peony Hanafuda (Kin-Botan)

This colourful Hanafuda edition by Windmill, named Kin-Botan (Golden Peony) is a faithful replica of another original deck that once belonged to Itô Hirofumi.

The deck is itself more or less double the size of traditional Hanafuda. Each subject is printed on brown cardstock of  'ordinary' thickness, i.e. similar to the one used for Western cards.

The Hikari, Tane and Tanzaku cards are printed in very bright colours, while the Kasu cards are yellow with a particular background texture.  Only the Kasu card of Yanagi (Willow) maintains its traditional red colour.

These cards are printed following a special technique called Kyôto yuuzen, which is the one traditionally used in Kyoto for printing textures on kimono garments. In most of the cards, the main subject is enriched with details in gold paint, giving the reason for the name of the deck (which is featured on the extra card).
'Matsu' - Pine

'Yanagi' (or 'Ame') - Willow (or Rain)

The extra card with the name of the deck


Awabana or Kinotokibana

The Kintokibana (officially Awabana) is a pattern born in the old province of Awa (now Tokushima prefecture, Shikoku). The name Kintoki refers to the legendary person featured on the extra card. This pattern spread to the north to Honshu in present day Okayama prefecture.

The most outstanding feature of the pattern is the presence of numerals, (except on the Kiri suit) referring to the twelve families or suits. They are found on almost every Kasu (Junk) card, in the shape of an encircled Japanese-Chinese character.

All the Tanzaku (Ribbons) but one feature a number, which is a part of the name of the month in Japanese language: 'Month 1' is January i.e. the suit of Matsu (Pine), 'Month 2' is February i.e. the suit of Ume (Plum) and so on.

Only two Tane cards from the suits of Fuji (Wisteria) and Yanagi (Willow) bear the encircled number, while the latter is not featured in other subjects, among which are all five Kô cards.

Yanagi or Ame suit

Kiri suit

Finally, the extra subject of the Kintoki deck after which this pattern was renamed: the Kintarô card.


Very popular in the Japanese folk tradition, yet based on a person who actually lived around the 10th century, Kintarô was a child of extraordinary strength, who outrooted trees and wrestled with bears in the mountains where he lived. 

He is traditionally featured as a rather stout boy with tanned (Red) skin, who wears only a breastplate with a large character for 'Gold' (Kin) and carries an axe.  He later became a distinguished warrior or samurai, changing his name into Kintoki Sakata.

Dragon-Tiger Hanafuda

Most Hanafuda games are played between two opponents. In 2000, manufacturer Matsui Tengudô issued a four-player version, named Ryuu-Ko ('Dragon-Tiger') after the Tane subjects of two extra suits found in the deck. The edition is also referred to as Nana-nana-bana ('Seven-seven flower cards'), which mimics Hachi-Hachi ('Eight-Eight'), the traditional game played with standard Hanafuda decks.

Despite being a novelty, all subjects closely follow  the classic Hanafuda design, including the two suits created for this purpose.  The extra suits are 'Hasu' (Lotus) also described as 'Heaven month', whose Tane card features the Dragon, and 'Sasa' or 'Take' (Bamboo) also described as "Earth month", whose tane card features the tiger. Both suits also have a red Tanzaku (Ribbon) card.

'Hasu' (Lotus) suit

'Sasa' (Bamboo) suit

The other suits and subjects of the deck are the standard ones (see picture below), although as a reminiscence of the early Meiji period editions (19th century), verses of tanka poems are featured on the kasu cards of Pine, Plum, Wisteria, Iris, Eulalia and Maple families, a detail also found in the Echigobana regional pattern.

'Susuki' (Pampas) suit - note the Tanka poems on the Junk cards


Hanapua is a localised edition of Hanafuda (designed by Ken Kudo), whose subtitle 'Hawaii Flower Card Game' suggests it having been devised with the purpose of reviving the interest of Hawaiian players for Hanafuda. On the Pacific chain of Islands live the descendants of many Japanese post Second World War expatriates who gradually lost interest in the traditional game. Sets printed on regular cardstock with Japanese flower names translated into English were manufactured for some time but Hanafuda games kept losing ground to Western ones all the same.

This Hanapua edition goes back to the roots as it is printed on traditionally sized cards but the twelve suits have been completely changed, choosing not only flowers, but also other local features (e.g. petroglyphs). The design of each subject was adapted to the new suits, without a strict relation to the traditional ones, yet maintaining the classic graphic style of Hanafuda illustrations.

The suits are as follows:

  • Bamboo
  • Vanna
  • Plumeria
  • Monstera
  • Orchid
  • Anthurium
  • Hibiscus
  • Bird of Paradise
  • Pineapple
  • Taro
  • Palm Tree
  • Petroglyph

Among the noticeable features is the well-known greeting ALOHA, spelt on the red vertical ribbons and upside down along the 'Curtain card'.

Bright and Junk card from Pineapple suit

Animal and Junk card from Petroglyph suit

Bright and Ribbon card from Palm suit

Ribbon Orchid card

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Baiken - 梅喧


Baiken (梅喧) is a one-armed, pipe smoking Samurai and is one of the few characters of Japanese descent in the Guilty Gear (ギルティギア) fighting game series by Arc System Works (which debuted in 1998 on PlayStation). Baiken was a hidden character in Guilty Gear but became a normal character in later installments. Baiken is one of my favourite characters and I still cannot decide whether she or Jam is my favourite Guilty Gear character but nonetheless it brings back good memories of playing on the PSP!

Her background is that during the Crusades, the nation of Japan was destroyed by the Gears. Following this, those of Japanese descent who still lived were declared cultural treasures and placed in special 'colonies'. When Baiken was a child, the Gears attacked the Japanese Institute she was living in at the time. During the invasion, she witnessed the bloody death of her parents and other people, her right arm was severed and her left eye gouged out. Amidst the flames, she could only see the silhouette of 'That Man' and swore revenge on him (and presumably the Gears as well) for what they had done. She trained herself in the use of the katana and dedicated herself to hunting 'That Man' down.

The character of Baiken was heavily inspired by Himura Kenshin, to the point where her initial physical appearance in the first game was a pallette swap of Kenshin. It is said that Daisuke Ishiwatari (the character designer) got the idea when he saw a picture of Kenshin and mistook him for a woman.  Baiken is likely named (using different kanji) after Baiken Shishido (宍戸梅軒), an Edo period Samurai.

Aside from the superficial similarities to Kenshin, the concept of a one-armed, one-eyed samurai seeking revenge for his/her clan was directly lifted from Hayashi Fubo's popular literary hero, Tange Sazen. Sazen has been the subject of several stage and film adaptations in Japan. Originally a man, the character has also been portrayed as a female in several films, which is most likely where the inspiration for Baiken emerged from.

'Destroyed' - Baiken's Killing Move (Garyou Tensei)

Baiken is also the spiritual successor to Genjuro Kibagami of the Samurai Spirits series of fighting games by SNK (see my January 2012 blog for more).  Although Baiken does not personify Hanafuda like Genjuro does, she does still have Hanafuda shown within some of her 'special moves' (more specifically her 'Force Breaks').

Baku Tsuki (Moon)

Baku Tsuru (Crane)

Baku Sakura (Cherry blossom)

Apologies for the poor quality screenshots but I couldn't find any on the internet so I had to improvise by taking my own on my mobile phone camera.

Baiken also shreds a Tanzaku with her katana in one of her victory pose animations.

Baiken's Stage* - Colony

*shared with the character Anji Mito

'Guilty Gear Accent Core Plus' version

'Guilty Gear X' version

These two 'stage' designs reference Hanafuda with the Tsuki, Sakura and Momiji!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Tanzaku (短冊)

'Tanzaku' - 5 Ribbons = 1 point

Tanzaku (短冊) or Tan  is the basic Ribbon hand (ergo consisting of Ribbons that don't make Aka-Tan or Ao-Tan) in Koi-Koi.  Tanzaku are small vertical poem cards, approximately 36cm long x 6cm wide that may be plain or decorated with coloured designs, sprinkled with cut gold, silver or mica or covered with silk. The Japanese write wishes on them and hang them in trees.  Supposedly these originated from small slips of paper used for divining in ancient times.

Tanzaku (shown here during Tanabata festivities)

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Japanese Crane

'Matsu ni Tsuru'

For the Japanese, the Crane (Tsuru) is considered a national treasure, appearing in art, literature and folklore. The Japanese regard the Crane as a symbol of good fortune and longevity because of its fabled life span of a thousand years. It also represents fidelity as Japanese Cranes are known to mate for life. Over time, the Crane has also evolved as a favourite subject of the Japanese tradition of paper folding (Origami) as children and adults attempt to master the art.

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the folded origami cranes came to symbolise a hope for peace through Sadako Sasaki (佐々木 禎子) and her unforgettable story of perseverance. Diagnosed with leukemia after being exposed to radiation after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the USAF on 6 August 1945, Sadako became determined to reach a goal of folding 1,000 Cranes in hope of being rewarded with health, happiness and a world of eternal peace. Although she died before reaching her goal, the tradition of sending origami Cranes to the Hiroshima memorial has endured as a symbol of the Japan’s ongoing wish for nuclear disarmament and world peace.

'1000 Paper Cranes'

Sadako Sasaki Monument, Hiroshima Peace Park

At the base of the monument is a black marble slab on which is inscribed in Japanese:
これはぼくらの叫びです これは私たちの祈りです 世界に平和をきずくための
Kore wa bokura no sakebi desu. Kore wa watashitachi no inori desu. Sekai ni heiwa o kizuku tame no.
This is our cry, this is our prayer: for building peace in the world.

Mukaituru Mon