Wednesday, 9 May 2012

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).

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