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~~ Gallery 20 ~~
Regional Cards

Japan · Korea
· page 1 ·
Historical And General Notes
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I wish to thank Bob Dayle and Tadahiko Norieda for their contribution to the historical notes

The cards traditonally used in Japan and Korea are rather small in size, compared to Western ones. It has been suggested that when cards were first imported in the country from Europe, the local manufacturers reduced their original size to make them more easy to hold by the smaller hands of Japanese players. Probably there is also another reason for this, which is linked to their Portuguese origin (see Historical Notes, below).
They show a few elements in common with Chinese decks: their backs have a plain colour, with no pictures nor patterns, and they do not have a plastic coating, either. However, they are much more colourful and elaborate than Chinese cards, and their shape is never long and thin (as most decks from China and Hong Kong).
A peculiar feature is their considerable thickness, which makes them much stiffer than any other type of card: for this reason they are not shuffled in hand, but simply placed face down on the floor, or on a playing surface, and randomly mixed up like domino tiles.

Japanese playing cards

the Japanese words have been romanized, i.e. spelt in letters according to their original sound,
following the Hepburn system, officially used in most Western countries;
due to the absence of the macron among the ASCII characters, the latter has been replaced
with the circumflex accent (e.g.  Ô = long "O")

For the sake of an easy loading of the many pictures, this gallery has been split into the following pages:
 PAGE 1 

historical and
general notes

Unsun Karuta
 PAGE 2 


 PAGE 3 


 PAGE 4 

regional patterns

 PAGE 5 

special editions

 PAGE 6 

Hanafuda · Hwatu
cartoon editions

 PAGE 7 

regional patterns
 PAGE 8 

regional patterns
 PAGE 9 

 PAGE 10 

"thin" card


The origin of playing cards in Japan dates back to the mid 16th century, and curiously links to European cards more than it does to Chinese ones.
Japan (yellow) and Korea (green)
In year 1549, on August 15th, a Portoguese ship which carried the Jesuit priest Francisco Xavier, later known as Saint Francis Xavier, who was travelling the Far East to spread the Christian religion, entered the port of Kagoshima (southern Japan). The crew brought on land a deck of Western cards; they were a typical Spanish pack, made of 48 cards. However, the same cards might have already reached the country a few years earlier, when the first Potuguese ships had reached Japan.
This novelty, initially called by the locals "cards of the southern barbarians", i.e. the Europeans, surely stirred their curiosity; the new word karuta (Japanese version of the Portoguese word carta, "card") was created, and they were soon adopted as a form of entertainment and gamble.
In fact, non-gambling games such as Uta-Awase and Kai Ôi, considered the ancestors of modern Uta Karuta and Iroha Karuta, were already being played in Japan by the high social class (see Non suited decks - III for further historical notes and details); however, not cards but painted sea-shells were used for the aforesaid games, and players had to match in couples according to their subjects (either poems or pictures).

old painted sea-shell


Most of the cards shown belong to an edition printed by Mount Hood Playing Card Company (USA), based on a reproduction
on display in the Miike Museum in Ômuta (Japan). The illustrations slightly differ from the original ones, having been
cut out, pasted on a white background, and given a black outline; the photographic reproduction too appears a bit blurry,
but so far this is the closest (and only) Tenshô edition available.

Tenshô Karuta: four pip cards (top row)
and four courts (a king, a cavalier and two knaves)
The first pattern ever produced in the country is now referred to as Tenshô Karuta, after the Tenshô period (1573-1591). In those days, though, not this name, but the generic word karuta ("cards") was used. The design was clearly based on the early Portuguese decks, from which it had been copied. Its suits were Ôru (from the Portuguese suit of Ouros, i.e. "coins"), Koppu (from Copas, "cups"), Pau (from Paus, "batons") and Isu (short for Espadas, "swords"). Also the number of cards, forty-eight, was the same as in any deck from Portugal or Spain: each suit had pip cards from 1 to 9, and three courts named sôta (knave), kaba (cavalier) and rei (king), Japanized equivalents of the Portuguese names sota, cavaleiro and rei.

The pips in the suit of Ôru (Coins) had the central part coloured in red and black. As during the following centuries the design of the Japanese cards grew more and more stylized, this apparently minor detail became the main visual link between the Ôru pips found in the several Mekuri patterns, i.e. red and black circles or ovals, and these early cards (as shown below).
In the Tenshô Karuta the pips of Isu (Swords) were coloured in red; this may be a little surprising, because according to the modern shape of Latin suits, Swords are always blue; but in early Hispanic editions they often had more than one colour, including red. Also this feature was maintained by Mekuri patterns, in which the Isu pips are extremely stylized, and look like stripes, but are still red.

7 of Ôru from the Tenshô Karuta (left),
and the same subject from two Mekuri patterns

il seme di Koppu giapponese, e il
suo equivalente ispanico-portoghese
The Hau (Batons) were correctly interpreted as cudgels, but in the Japanese version they had red notches along the shaft, making them vaguely reminiscent of a bamboo stem.

The Koppu (Cups) underwent a certain change; probably their shape was partly misunderstood by the Japanese cardmakers, as the uppermost red section no longer represented the inside part of the goblet, as it did - and still does - in Hispanic patterns.

The arrangement of the the pips in the suits of Isu and Hau, that form many intersections at regular intervals, covered by diamond-shaped decorations, was also found in the old Portuguese pattern, as well as the female knaves, one more typical feature; in the Tenshô Karuta the knaves of Coins and Cups wear a veil, while the other two apparently hold a long unidentified object, only a part of which is visible due to the clipped illustrations, as will be said further on.

the Tenshô Karuta aces
But the subjects that most of all reveal the origin of the design are the dragons on the four aces, the real hallmark of the Portuguese pattern; still clearly recognizable in the Tenshô cards, in time they became more and more stylized, up to the point that in Mekuri patterns their shape turned completely abstract, although they are still there.

What differed most between the European cards and the newborn Tenshô Karuta was their size: the Japanese ones were definitely smaller, more or less as a modern patience deck.
The Portuguese sailors had probably trimmed their cards, maybe even more than once, so that a few details next to the rim were actually clipped off. The difference is particularly evident in some of the subjects, such as the cavaliers, in which the horse's heads are no longer visible, as if they had been cut off.
But why had the deck been "shrinked"? This may be explained with the ancient use of trimming cards on their edges when the latter got damaged or worn (a reconstruction showing what size a full card might have had is shown on the left). It is likely that the Portuguese sailors used this expedient during their voyages, also because in foreign lands the cards they normally used, i.e. either the Portuguese or the Spanish pattern, were not available.

had the Portuguese cards not been trimmed, Japanese decks
might have been larger, similar in size to European ones
reprint of Tenshô Karuta
some of the same subjects previously shown,
from the reproduction in the Miike Museum, Ômuta
The Japanese likely copied these cards as they saw them for the first time, i.e. maintaining the clipped images, which they believed to be the actual design. This also explains their small size, compared to any Western deck. Smaller cards might have also been easier to handle by Japanese players; but the reduction was probably not a deliberate initiative of the local card makers, as maintained by some scholars, but simply a coincidence due to the trimmed Portuguese decks.

Of the number of decks manufactured in the 16th century, only a single card has survived, a king of Ôru kept in the Miike Museum, in Ômuta (southern Japan), not far from Kagoshima, where the first portuguese ships entered the country. The picture on the left shows both its sides.
However, among the exhibits held by the Kobe City Museum is a wooden box that was made by cutting into fragments the original wood-blocks of a whole Tenshô Karuta set: thanks to this box it has been possible to find out exactly what the lost cards looked like (obviously, only the ones specifically belonging to this deck).
The "EXHIBITION" page of the Miike Museum features the whole set of 48 reproduced subjects.
original subject of Tenshô Karuta
the only original surviving card:
the king of Ôru, front and back
(courtesy of Tadahiko Norieda)

In 1633, due to a very conservative nationalist policy, the use of foreign cards, as well as any other Western-related activity, was forbidden. Anybody caught playing with Western cards would have been branded as a follower of Christanity (which was proscribed, as well), and eventually sentenced to death. Therefore, attempts were made to produce local patterns to by-pass the ban. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that the ancient matching games had survived, and a 17th century source mentions cards for E-Awase (literally "picture matching"), clearly inspired by the early games played with shells.


the cards shown are from an edition reissued by Ôishi (Japan)

Another local deck was created in the second half of the 17th century, called Unsun Karuta after the name of two special court cards (see below). It was strongly inspired by the original Portoguese card scheme, basically repeating the Tenshô Karuta, yet introducing a new suit, more court cards and joker cards too.

dragons from the suits of Guru, Ôru and Isu

Unsun Karuta: 2 and 9 of Hau
The Unsun Karuta deck is made of seventy-five cards, divided into five suits, four of which were borrowed directly from the Portoguese ones; the suit of Hau or Pau (Batons) features sticks from which wigs, leaves and flowers (or berries) spring, similar to the ones most patterns of Hispanic origin still now have: for this reason this suit is also known as Hana ("Flowers"). And in both the suits of Hau and Isu (Batons and Swords), the respective pips cross each other in a fashion typical of the early Portuguese pattern.
The fifth suit, instead, is non-standard; it is called Guru ("round, around"), and it features comma-shaped strokes arranged in a circular pattern, almost forming a whirl.
Each of the five suits had more cards than a Tenshô deck: fifteen, versus the usual twelve, due to the greater number of courts, which are a cavalier, a seated king, a queen, plus two further personages called Sun and Un and a dragon.
The queen is the card into which the original knave was turned, as testified by the Portuguese-derived name of the latter, sôta, which remained unchanged for the female personage, yet given a higher ranking. The dragons, instead, which in the Portuguese decks were only the aces' decorations, in the Unsun Karuta were turned into individual subjects, so that in each suit both a dragon and an ace are found.
The scheme of the deck is summarized in the following table.

1 (ace) of Guru
Ôru · Oru

Koppu · Kotsu

Hau · Pau


(whirl pattern)

PIP CARDS 1 · 2 · 3 · 4 · 5 · 6 · 7 · 8 · 9
COURT CARDS Kaba  (horse, cavalier)
(from lower to higher)Rei  (king)
Sôta  (queen, from the Portuguese knave)
Sun  (non-standard subject)
Un  (non-standard subject)
Robai  (dragon, as a court or as a joker)

(top) Sun and Un of Hau;
(bottom) Sun and Un of Koppu

The two courts called Sun and Un have dark backgrounds, while the remaining ones have them in yellow. The Sun cards depict Chinese personages, while the Un cards feature four of the Seven Deities of Good Luck (or Lucky Gods), seated and smiling personages borrowed from Buddhist mythology. The ones present in the Unsun Karuta are shown on the right. Instead the Un of the suit of Guru features Dharma, the Indian priest credited for having taken Zen Buddhism into China, in the 6th century.
Ebisu  (god of fishermen and good fortune)Ôru
Hotei  (god of contentment and happiness)Koppu
Fukurokuji  (god of wisdom and longevity)Isu
Daikoku  (god of farmers and wealth)Hau
Dharma (Daruma)Guru

Sun and Un of Isu

Kaba, Rei and Sôta of Guru

Despite a fully Portuguese origin has always been claimed for the Unsun Karuta, we should not forget that by those times, the only Westerners legally allowed to run commercial trades in Japan were the Dutch; five-suited hunting decks (see the main Historical Notes page) were indeed a variety of cards known in Germany and, very likely, in the Netherlands too. Therefore, while this pattern is undoubtly similar to the Tenshô Karuta, its composition may have been partly inspired by more complex decks once used in Northern Europe.

Unsun Karuta: 4 of Ôru, 3 of Koppu and 7 of Isu
Furthermore, both Tenshô Karuta and Unsun Karuta patterns were used for playing trick games, similar to those played in Europe with tarots and hunting decks. Such games were more complicated than the "ordinary" gambling ones, likely played by the common people with the standard Portuguese and Spanish decks.

Another interesting detail is the historically early presence of a female court among the subjects of the Unsun Karuta.
Portuguese cards had no queens, although their knaves were female. However, we cannot exclude a contamination by the tarot, the only early deck with four courts (or sometimes more), still very popular in the 17th century Europe, in which both a knave and a queen were present. This may also be suggested by the fact that in the game called "8-Player Meri", the four dragons act as jokers (i.e. as the tarot's Fool), while a joker card was not present in the Portuguese deck.

Kaba, Rei and Sôta of Ôru
At present, Unsun Karuta may be considered an extinct game, despite a few members of societies which study traditional pastimes still keep it alive.


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 too used 48-card decks, four suits of 12 cards each, with the same values and courts as the original Portuguese ones, although the suit signs and illustrations were considerably stylized, and the aces and court personages 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.

family tree of Japan's regional patterns

Mekuri games grew popular, but around 1790 a further law prohibited them, because they were still a form of 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 one too 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 *********************** realized 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.

reprint of a 19th century edition, by Ôishi (Japan)
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 1800s a further variety called Tehonbiki sprang from this group.

In 1885 all bans on playing cards were removed.

During the Japanese invasion of Korea, 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 (see page 2). Therefore, the origin of the Korean pattern is rather recent.


The Japanese playing cards may be divided into two distinct groups.

Basically, all of them match the scheme of play of the group of games known as mekuri: the players turn their cards face up from a pile of covered ones.
Also Hanafuda variants follow this scheme; in the main pattern now produced no trace has been left of the numbers that once indicated the values, but in the obsolete variety called Kintoki the flower cards too feature numbers, according to the month (i.e the family or suit) they belong to.
Kabu instead, besides being a gambling game, as well, has rules more similar to international casino games, such as Baccarat.
Hanafuda is still played, while others are rather uncommon, kept alive by groups of local playing card and game historians.
labels of different manufacturers labels of different manufacturers
labels of different manufacturers labels of different manufacturers
Traditional mekuri games became practically exctint sometime between the 1950s and the 1960s. This was partially due to a certain misinterest by young generations for traditional cards, and to the ill-reputation given in Japan to card gambling, especially because this activity is notoriously a source of income for local criminal organizations.

Uta Karuta card
These decks are made of subjects in matching couplets. They are sometimes referred to as the yomifuda ("reading cards") group, because in all these games a non-participating person, i.e. a judge, reads for the two opponents the text of poems or proverbs featured on each card, which have to be matched with the relevant illustration. Traditional games belonging to this scheme are Uta Karuta and Iroha Karuta, dealt with in the Cards Without Traditional Suits section, Uta Karuta & Iroha gallery.

The two aforesaid groups have opposite social implications.
Gambling games are ill-reputed, or however considered a very cheap form of pastime, despite their popularity throughout the country.
Educational games, instead, are fostered not only at home but also at school, where tournaments are frequently held among students; even young children are encouraged to play, as a form of learning aid for reading.

Obviously, also several differences in manufacturing, graphics and size exist between the two groups of cards.
All decks belonging to the gambling group are small in size compared to Western cards, usually 33 x 55 mm. (11/2 x 21/8 in.), made of thick and heavy cardstock.
The backs of the cards are lined with black or deep red paper, while a separate part forms the front of each card, and bears the relevant illustration; in modern decks the latter is printed, but up to the late 1800s the cards were hand-painted.

These decks are always divided into suits, based on number 4, or its multiples: four suits of twelve cards each (mekuri group), or one suit repeated in four series of twelve cards each (Kabu group), or twelve suits with four subjects each (flower card or Hanafuda group).
mekuri scheme: 4 suits, values 1 to 12

kabu scheme: same suit repeated 4 times, values 1 to 12

flower card scheme:
12 suits, values 1 to 4

Only Tehonbiki decks differ from this scheme, following a special one (see
page 9).
Dôsai karuta and Mubeyama karuta, instead, reproduce the non-gambling scheme by mimicking Iroha karuta and Uta karuta games, although they clearly belong to the gambling group.
In any case, whatever pattern is used for gambling games, all the subjects of the deck have a specific value or rank, which is either shown by means of pips, as in Western patterns, or it is commonly agreed as a part of the rules (flower group). In some games there is also the opportunity of forming special combinations, made of three or more cards, which give the player extra points, or bonuses.

non-gambling card scheme:
picture cards and matching
text cards (or reading cards)
Educational decks, instead, are slightly larger in size. The cardstock is not as hard as the previous one, but still rather tough; this feature is required since these cards are subject to a certain wear by players, who during the game actually snatch them. Their illustrations are usually printed directly on the cards, whose back has no lining. A booklet with a list of readings (poems, proverbs), explanations, and other details comes with most editions.
These decks are always made of two matching sets, one with pictures, and one featuring only text, so-called reading cards. None of them has a given value: the game is simply won by the player who collects more.

other pages in this gallery
page 2
page 3

page 4
page 5
page 6
page 7
page 8
page 9

page 10


non-standard patterns advertisement decks sizes, shapes and colours standard pattern variants tarots non-suited cards Mercante in Fiera Uta Karuta, Iroha Karuta, Dôsai Karuta Âs nas
regional patterns: Italy regional patterns: Spain regional patterns: Germany regional patterns: Austria regional patterns: Switzerland regional patterns: France regional patterns: Sweden regional patterns: Portugal regional patterns: China regional patterns: South-Eastern Asia regional patterns: India uncut sheets mottos and proverbs

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