Shakespeare ‘karuta’ ambition realized


To be or not to be has never really been a question for Shakespeare aficionado Ayako Yoshimi.

Having worked as a medical engineer for 29 years, the spirited Yoshimi has consistently striven to improve her and her family’s lot, taking college correspondence courses in English literature and putting her three children through college.

Then, six years ago, she chose to study abroad at a community college in London to achieve one of her life-long dreams.

“It had been my ambition to publish a Shakespeare ‘karuta’ card game using his poetic phrases,” Yoshimi, 58, told The Japan Times in a recent interview. “The idea had been on my mind for over 15 years, and I knew it would be great fun.”

Japanese “karuta,” a word originating from the Portuguese term “carta,” is a game that uses an array of cards. In the game, one reader recites the first half of a verse inscribed on a card, often an ancient Japanese poem. Multiple competitors then look for the matching card that has the bottom half of the verse.

Instead of using ancient poetry, Yoshimi’s concept was to use quotes from the works of her beloved Shakespeare.

“My children loved karuta games, and considering all the Shakespeare fans in the world, I knew Shakespeare karuta would be a great way to appreciate his masterpieces.”

But in infusing Western classic literature into the traditional Japanese card game, she faced initial rejection while negotiating with publishers and printing houses in both London and Tokyo.

“I was repeatedly told at first that such a product would never sell well,” she said.

Enchanted by the Beatles and enthralled by the Rolling Stones, Yoshimi’s passion for the British art scene began while she was still a teenager growing up in Yokohama.

Her infatuation with Shakespeare developed later on, when she was in her early 40s.

“His use of words is never boring. Even a single phrase can be entertaining, if its done by Shakespeare,” she said, adding that she conquered a collection of 26 volumes of Shakespeare’s works.

“My favorite is ‘Twelfth Night.’ I loved it so much that I wanted to read it in English.”

After raising two daughters and a son, she opted to study Shakespeare at the London college. There, without any backup or experience of living abroad, she shelled out around ¥400,000 to publish 100 sets of her first edition of Shakespeare karuta.

The tricky part was choosing practical quotes from the author’s works, she said, because they had to be the right length, have a haiku-style rhythm, and be divided in to two parts. For the 48 quotes used on the cards, Yoshimi went through 13 of Shakespeare’s plays, including “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “King Lear.”

Illustrations were provided by a classmate, and the finished version of the cards was well received by her colleagues at the school.

“The first 100 sets sold out very quickly,” Yoshimi said of her pet project, which materialized 15 years after it was first conceived.

Following her return to Japan three years ago, Yoshimi again decided to invest in her project, this time ¥2 million to make 2,000 packs of the cards on her own, after several publishers in Tokyo rejected her idea. To add a different dimension to the game, she inscribed translations and descriptions of Shakespeare’s phrases in each card.

Yet, when Yoshimi found some typos in the 2,000 boxes that filled up half of her bedroom, she felt discouraged about her plans.

“I thought it would take the rest of my life to sell all of the 2,000 boxes,” Yoshimi said.

But most of the cards were gone after a year of visiting bookstores and asking them to display her Shakespeare karuta. College bookstores were also a good client when students began to use the card game to study English.

“But in the end, the reason why it sold so fast is because of Shakespeare’s talent,” Yoshimi said, adding that last September, Tokyo-based DTP Publishing agreed on a deal to produce Yoshimi’s cards.

The karuta now come with an audio CD and sell for ¥2,730. DTP’s version has already sold 1,000 sets, Yoshimi said.

Despite the expected difficulties in finding a British publisher, her next goal is to introduce the card game to England and beyond. Yoshimi remains certain that both Shakespeare lovers and English learners around the world would appreciate the game.

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” she said, quoting her favorite line from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“The same can be said about many things other than love.”

Visit for more information on the cards.