Kyoto shop reprints 400-year-old 'karuta'


Japan’s first playing cards, known as “tensho karuta” and patterned after trumps that were introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century, have been reproduced by a pioneer karuta shop in this city.

“Tensho Karuta,” the first domestically playing cards in Japan, have been reproduced by a karuta shop in Kyoto.

“At last, it has been fulfilled,” said Hidetoshi Horita, 48, a self-confessed karuta lover, in reference to a promise he made some 30 years ago to the late shopkeeper of Oishi Tengudo to reproduce the country’s first domestically produced cards.

According to Horita, a Nagasaki Prefecture native who has since been a regular customer of the shop in Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward, he first suggested reprinting the historic playing cards to the late storekeeper Masafumi Maeda. Maeda consented to the project, but it was not carried out at the time due to lack of funds. Horita said he again took up the idea in fall 1999, after he learned of Maeda’s death a year earlier.

With the consent of Maeda’s son, who now manages the store, the cards were finally produced last fall, with 50 limited-edition sets made available. One was offered to Maeda’s altar while the rest were sold for 280,000 yen each.

“The cards came out wonderfully in a way that specially conveys the enjoyment of (playing) karuta. I am sure Maeda will also be pleased with it,” Horita said, adding that he became fascinated with tensho cards after seeing their exotic Western-style designs. The first tensho karuta, named after the Tensho Period (1573-1592), were originally produced in a set of 48, only one of which remains today. It is currently stored at Hyogo Prefecture’s Tekisui museum. In the early 16th century, card playing was introduced to Japan, with tensho karuta becoming one of the earliest Western-style card games that was widely popular among the samurai families and townsmen of the Edo Period (1600-1868).

Gambling soon became rampant, however, prompting the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867) to ban card games along with other forms of gambling.

The karuta games later evolved into what is now commonly known as “hanafuda” (flower cards), “uta karuta” (poem cards), and “iroha karuta” (ABC cards), traditionally played during New Year festivities.

Karuta is derived from the Portuguese word “carta,” and refers to rectangular cards inscribed with numbers, pictures or writing used in playing Japanese card games. Western-style playing cards are now referred to as “torampu” (trump).

Today, karuta is usually played with two sets of cards — one is used to read out the starting lines of a poem or verse, while the second set is spread before competing players to pick out the matching card.