Almost all of us have played one form of card game or another. In Japan, one of the more popular games to play is known as Karuta. On the surface, it is a simple literary game, but it may actually be one of the toughest sports that you will ever encounter. Yes, the game requires excellent hearing, sharp memory, and stamina that it is considered a sport by many. There are varieties of this game all throughout Japan, but in this article, we'd like to focus on the game of competitive karuta.
The game uses a set of cards, called uta-garuta, where Hyakunin Isshu poems are printed. There are two decks of this card: one is called Yomifuda (reading card) where the entire poem is printed; the other is Torifuda (playing card) that contains only the last two verses of the poem.
|Torifuda on the left; Yomifuda on the right|
The game is typically played one-on-one. Each player gets 25 torifuda cards and strategically arranges them in three rows on the floor. The players have to memorize the positions of all cards, and we must note here that while they can recognize the texts, the opponent's cards are always up-side-down to the other player's point of view. A reader recites a yomifuda card and players compete on the torifuda card that corresponds to it. The first to touch the card gets it and removes it from the game. Once a player takes a card from the opponent's side, the said player may send one of their cards to their opponent. The first to empty their territory wins.
Sounds simple? The truth is, karuta players are advised to memorize all one hundred Hyakunin Isshu poems. That alone is challenge enough. Those who are serious (and passionate) in competing train themselves to improve their agility and accuracy. Some could even grab a card once the very first syllable has been read.
Due to its use of classical poetry, karuta is often being taught to children in elementary and junior high schools. Some high schools have their own clubs that they send to competitions and individual tournaments are being held throughout the year. Karuta is also a traditional activity during New Year's Eve.
Lately, the game is gaining popularity among the young and even foreign anime fans. This could be credited to an ongoing manga (and anime) series called Chihayafuru, which focuses on competitive karuta. Perhaps the portrayal of karuta in this anime is a bit exaggerated, but it definitely drives interest to anyone new to the game.
|A screenshot from the anime Chihayafuru where the main character swiftly takes a card|
Most popular card games in the world were developed during the early times for entertainment and gambling purposes. Poker card games, for example, have evolved into different varieties and gained mainstream popularity due to wide media coverage, numerous tournaments, skilled players, and enticing stakes. While different in purpose, karuta also evolved in a similar way. Championship and other tournaments are covered by the local media, and a few TV shows build plots that revolve around karuta.
Perhaps it is because of the difference in cards being used that competitive karuta won’t be a worldwide phenomenon in the near future, but foreigners with huge interest in Japanese culture will definitely be captivated by this culture-infused card game.
Trivia: Despite the game's cultural background, the word “karuta” isn't a native Japanese term. It is adopted from “carta”, the Portuguese term for “card”.