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Cards Without Traditional Suits

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Japanese Matching Cards

part 3

variants of the Iroha Karuta

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I thank Dana Kahana, Yoshikazu Kumamoto, Luca & Nui,
Tadahiko Norieda and Mayumi Yoshimura, whose kind contribution made this page possible

The simple principle on which the Iroha game is based, that is to match pictures and/or syllables with a full text, has inspired different editions in which the traditional set of proverbs has been replaced with other popular themes, such as animals, cartoons, history, etc. Obviously, the rules of the game do not change.
Several varieties are produced nowadays, as modern creations, but specimens are known to have been made as early as the 19th century. For instance, the picture on the right shows the top part of an uncut sheet of cards very similar to Iroha Karuta, yet featuring characters from the Chuushingura, a story based on an actual fact, about 47 samurai who, during the early 18th century, avenged the master they served after his death; this story is particularly popular in Japan.

uncut sheet of Iroha Karuta-like cards, printed in 1853,
whose theme was inspired by the Chuushingura story

(courtesy of Jeff Hopewell)

as soon as one enters Japan, there are cherry blossoms
is the rough translation of the poem on the right
The variety shown on the left is not based on traditional proverbs, but on haiku poems (i.e. short compositions consisting of three verses only, that contain five, seven and five syllables respectively), thus making this Iroha Karuta edition even closer to Uta Karuta, or "100 poets game", described in page 1. The title of this set is Issa no Karuta ("Issa's cards"), after the Buddhist monk and poet Issa Kobayashi (1763-1827), who was the author of several *** ****.
The beautiful black and white illustrations were created by artist Kyôko Yanagisawa in 1983, by skilfully cutting them out of paper. Her tiny monogram can be found at the bottom of each subject (on the right).


all the samples shown in colour come from a replica by Kokushokankoukai (Japan)

Edo Ghost Cards (Edo Yôkai Karuta) was a set of 48 subjects featuring supernatural creatures. This apparently strange theme can be easily understood considering that Japan's folklore has always been crowded with such presences, whose name yôkai generically refers to a wide range of eerie creatures (ghosts, goblins, apparitions, and the like). Besides being the theme of these cards, in fact, they are often found in paintings, literature, Kabuki theater plays, etc.
Therefore, not proverbs, but the name or a brief description of each being formed the text featured on the yomifuda, or reading cards.
The sample pictures shown in this page come from a modern replica of an original deck dating back to the early 19th century.

syllable KA
kameyama no bakemono
("the Kameyama ghost")
The efuda faithfully reproduce the old hand-painted illustrations, while the yomifuda have been redrawn, and slightly adapted to meet the modern Japanese spelling.

syllable SO
sora o tobu hitodama
("the spirit of the dead that flies to the sky")
Almost as old as the earliest Iroha sets, the ghost cards may be considered the equivalent of a regional pattern, having been reported only in the area of Edo (now Tokyo): unlike the proverb cards, whose success still nowadays persists all over Japan, apparently they never spread to the rest of the country. However, ghost cards were certainly not an occasional novelty, and other decks of similar age still exist, although some of their subjects went lost. A few samples, that come from a book published by the same editor, are shown for a comparison.

syllable MU
mukashi-mukashi omoi tsudsura no bakemono
("the old-time ghosts of heavy clothes hampers")

syllable RU
rusu no ma ni deru bakemono
("ghost that appears during one's absence")

syllable RU from two other
ghost card decks of similar age:
both subjects are different

syllable CHI
chôchin kozô
("paper lantern boy")
Many of the supernatural beings in the set have a human shape, but some of them incarnate as animals, and some others, such as the spook of the lantern and that of the pestle, recall the same shape of the everyday's objects they haunt.
However, many of the creatures found in one deck mismatch the ones found in others, as if the ghost card subjects had never reached a steady standard.

syllable RE
renki no bakemono
("the ghost of the pestle")
Also the caption or text for each ghost, whose opening syllable appears in the small circle above the illustration, in many cases differs from that of other editions.
The eerie look of some of the spooks portrayed in these sets suggests that the Yôkai Karuta game was a pastime more suitable for grown-up players, whereas the classic Iroha cards have always been traditionally played with by school-aged children.

This variety of cards did not last very long: it died out probably during the same 19th century, and was never revived.
syllable O
oki ni mieru funa-yuurei
"the boat-ghost seen in the open sea"
syllable O from another
deck: the subject is
completely different

syllable E
en no shita kara deru tatami-age no kai
("the rug-lifting creature that emerges
from the underground surroundings")

KYÔ, the last subject
kyô no machi e deru katawa-guruma
("the deformed wheel that appears
going towards Kyoto")


all the samples shown come from an edition by Hanazono-Bunko (Japan)

This variety of cards, whose long original name reads Kanji  ·  Hiragana Ryôyô Kotowaza Karuta, is closely related to the standard Bô-Inu Iroha, but with a more specific educational purpose.
In fact, they are conceived as a double set of 44 subjects, with illustrations repeated twice, in red and in black. The reduced number of cards (four less than in traditional editions) is due to the lack of words that begin with syllables WI, WE and WO in modern Japanese; also the KYÔ card, i.e. the last subject of all classic Iroha decks, is not present.

Each card with red pictures has its kana, i.e. the phonetic syllable, inside a small octagon, which replaces the usual circle; the octagon of the black set features the first word of the corresponding proverb spelt as a Chinese character.
The full text of the proverb is printed on the back of each card in a large font, this time using phonetic syllables in the black set, and glyphs in the red one, an arrangement opposite that of the front. On one side of the proverb spelt with glyphs (red set), a further text explains its moral meaning; in traditional Iroha editions this is usually printed on a separate booklet or leaflet that comes with the deck.

syllable SE
sen ri no michi mo ippô yori hajimaru
("even a thousand mile journey starts with one step")

syllable MA
marui tamago mo kiri yô de shikoku
("even a round egg, by cutting it, turns square")
The sample above shows a matching couple for syllable SE: the fronts are in the top row, the backs in the bottom row. The syllable of the red card reads SE, while the character of the black card reads SEN ("thousand"), i.e. the first word of the proverb.
The size of the edition presented in this page is more or less double that of an average Iroha deck, due to the long text on the back of the cards.
The list of proverbs is ordered according to the modern Japanese syllabary, i.e. it no longer follows the I-RO-HA sequence, and although for syllable I the classic "even a dog..." saying has been maintained, several new proverbs replace traditional ones. A sign of the times!

This type of cards may be used both for playing Iroha (young players will prefer the red set as efuda and the black set as yomifuda, being the syllables easier to read than the glyphs), and as an aid for learning the complicated characters, by matching and comparing the red subjects with the black ones. Therefore, there is no fixed rule of play: these cards may be used in many ways.

syllable I
inu mo arukeba bô ni ataru
("even a dog, walking around, will find a stick")

syllable RO
ron yori shôko
("evidence is more important than discussion")

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