Ultimate Guide to Karuta

By The Japan Switch Team | March 12th, 2024 

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    One of our favorite ways of immersing yourself in a foreign culture is experimenting with the fun things that make up said culture – from popular folkloric tales, to nursery rhymes, and of course, to games. Karuta (かるた) is one of the most popular traditional games to still be played in Japan today, and here is your complete guide with everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the game.

    This article is a part of our extensive series on Learning about Japan through Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.


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    A Brief History of Karuta

    First things first, let’s take a look at how karuta became a thing in Japan. While the game may sound all exotic, karuta actually takes its name from the Portuguese word for card, “carta”. That’s because it was Portuguese traders who first introduced the Japanese to a slew of trick-taking card games somewhere in the middle of the 16th century.

    Put simply, trick-taking card games involve a finite “hand” of tricks being played (e.g. everyone puts a card down), as well as a set of rules to determine the winner (or “taker”) of the hand. Popular examples include whist, bridge, and spades.

    Foreign traders visiting Japan favored such pastimes, and gradually introduced the Japanese to them, as well. As the games grew in popularity across Japan, the Japanese shifted focus from merely following foreign-set rules to inventing their own.

    The very first example of indigenous karuta games were recorded towards the end of the 16th century, in the district town of Miike, in the Chikugo Province (筑後国, today the southern part of the Fukuoka Prefecture).

    While the game has seen several changes down the centuries, and the province has changed its name, history has not been forgotten. To honor the birth of karuta here, the town of Ōmuta (大牟田市) in the modern-day Fukuoka Prefecture, houses the only karuta memorial museum in the world today.


    A Brief History of Karuta

    As with most popular card games, there are several types of karuta games being played in Japan (and not only). Normally, karuta games are divided into two main categories: those derived from Portuguese-suited playing cards, and those inspired by e-awase.

    Portuguese- suited Karuta

    Since most card games do hail originally from Portuguese traders, we thought it only fair to start with this category.

    Fun fact: the name is actually misleading, as the cards themselves are not of Portuguese descent. In truth, Portuguese-suited playing cards are called that due to the fact that Portugal was one of the last European countries to keep using them. The cards themselves, however, are believed to have been invented in Spain, given the many similarities to Spanish-suited playing cards.

    Portuguese-suited cards feature a slightly altered take on the classic Latin-style suit system, consisting of cups, swords, coins, and clubs. Portuguese-suited cards feature knobbly clubs and straight swords (blending Spanish-suited playing cards with variations popular in Northern Italy).

    The following card games, while significantly altered to better suit indigenous rules, hail from these Portuguese-suited cards.


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    Hanafuda (花札, lit. “flower cards”) cards are typically smaller and harder than classic playing cards, and feature an assortment of plants, birds, animals, and even man-made objects. A single card features an actual human being. The cards are not divided in suits, but rather in months of the year, and are used to play a variety of games, such as Hachi-Hachi or Koi-Koi.

    The purpose of the games is to form various combinations with the cards. One can collect all four cards in a month, but also make various combinations according to the symbols and writing on each card.

    Some Hanafuda cards feature various bits of Japanese text that add to the card’s significance.


    Komatsufuda (小松札) first emerged as a card game using traditional Portuguese-suited playing cards. These featured the same four suits, and like Portuguese playing cards of that period, were all missing the 10s.

    However, Komatsufuda games saw a radical change under the Sakoku policy during the Edo Period. Sakoku was a heavily isolationist policy that significantly limited all trade between Japan and any other country, and banned foreign products, including Portuguese-style playing cards. To abide by the policy, manufacturers were forced to severely alter their cards, which is how modern-day Komatsufuda cards were born.

    Today, most games played with Komatsufuda have been forgotten, with the exception of Kakkuri (カックリ).

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    Kabufuda (株札) bears a lot of similarities to Hanafuda, in that suits are irrelevant in this game. (If missing a proper Kabufuda set, a Hanafuda set can actually be used as a substitute.)

    Kabafuda cards come in decks of forty, with numbers going from 1 to 10, and four cards assigned to each number. Today, they are mostly used for gambling games, the most popular one being Oicho-Kabu (おいちょかぶ), a variation of Baccarat, where the goal is to reach 9.

    Unsun Karuta

    Unsun Karuta (うんすんカルタ) is a deck of cards developed towards the end of the 17th century and features a whopping 75 playing cards, divided into five suits (15 cards each).

    The Unsun Karuta playing cards are used to play hachinin-meri,  a version of the very popular Ombre. As in Ombre, the order of the cards changes according to which suit is the trump suit that round.


    Finally, Hikifuda (引札) or Harifuda (張札) decks can be used to play Tehonbiki (手本引), a popular gambling game, whose scope is for the player to guess the number the dealer has selected.

    The two decks are very similar, they both use stylized cards, numbered from 1 to 6, but Harifuda decks feature 42 cards (seven sets of six), while Hikifuda features 48 cards (eight sets of six).


    E-awase Karuta

    Finally, another major category of karuta is derived from e-awase (絵合), which in turn was derived from kai-awase.

    Basically, kai-awase (貝合わせ) is a traditional Japanese game played with painted shells. The shells are arranged in a random pattern, with the purpose being to match one shell with the other “half” (the shell whose painting fits the first one’s). Traditionally, kai-awase shells feature elaborate depictions of The Tale of Genji (源氏物語).

    E-awase was derived from kai-awase in the sense that it featured the same rules, except the game was adapted from shells to playing cards. Originally, e-awase was a popular pastime for the Japanese nobility during the Kamakura Period (鎌倉時代, 1185-1333), but gradually trickled down to the entire population.


    Uta-garuta (歌ガルタ) is the poetry variation of the basic e-awase game, and literally translates to “poetry karuta”. Uta-garuta features two stacks of cards: the reading cards, yomifuda (読札), and the grabbing cards, torifuda (取り札).

    A reading card features a complete short poem, while a grabbing card only has the last few lines. The aim of the game is that, once a reading card is read out, players race to match it to the card with the closing lines.

    A variation of this game is found on the island of Hokkaido and requires players to match the cards starting from the closing lines of the poem. This is called ita-karuta (板かるた).


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    Iroha Karuta

    Finally, Iroha Karuta (いろはかるた) is a matching game slightly easier to follow than Uta-garuta and is what most people refer to when they say karuta. It’s similar in many ways to Uta-garuta, though features some notable differences, such as:

    • Deck size – whereas Uta-karuta is played using two decks of 100 cards each, Iroha Karuta only uses 96 cards;
    • Audience – while children and adults can, of course, play both games, Iroha Karuta is typically more aimed at children, whereas Uta-garuta is often for adults.
    What’s on the Iroha Karuta cards?

    Unlike the Uta-garuta cards which feature small poems, Iroha Karuta cards use the 47 syllables of the hiragana (平仮名) syllabary (one of the main syllabaries used in the Japanese language, along with katakana and kanji), with the 48th syllable (-n ん) being replaced by kyō (京, "capital"), since -n ん can’t be used to start sentences.

    Iroha Karuta - Base Game

    In Iroha Karuta, we start with the “grabbing cards”, the torifuda, which feature a picture, with a phonetic Kana depiction in one corner. The “reading cards”, aka the yomifuda, also feature said Kana, together with a proverb referring to the image on the torifuda. Players must connect the proverb with its matching picture and phonetic depiction.

    Traditionally, there were three major variants of Iroha Karuta decks, in accordance with local dialect and cultural distinctions: the Owari, the Kamigata, and the Edo. The Owari (尾張国, modern day: Aichi Prefecture) was largely replaced with the far more popular Edo variant.

    While the Kamigata (上方, also referred to as “Kyoto Karuta”) was the oldest version of the game, it was far surpassed in popularity by the Edo variant (江戸). “Edo”, of course, was the old name for Tokyo, and indeed, it is this version you’re most likely to come across in Japan today.

    While the basic rules are the same, each deck features its own set of proverbs and associated images.

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    Variations of Iroha Karuta

    Jomo Karuta

    Karuta is a well-loved game in Japan as well as abroad, but one of the regions that loves it best is Japan’s Gunma Prefecture, which holds a yearly Jomo Karuta competition. Jomo Karuta (上毛かるた) is called thus because “jomo” is an old word for Gunma.

    The Jomo deck is dedicated entirely to the culture and history of the Gunma Prefecture, featuring famous people in its history, places, and major events to have impacted the prefecture. It’s not only a fun game, but also a wonderful way for players (mostly locals, but not exclusively) to honor their history.

    Fun Fact: While the basic Jomo Karuta deck stays the same, the “chi” card changes from generation to generation, as it’s meant to represent the population of Gunma. Given that many Gunma locals memorize the cards by heart as young children, it’s possible to guess a person’s age by simply learning what “chi” card they use.

    Obake Karuta

    Obake Karuta (お 化ばけ) cards were first designed in modern-day Tokyo during the Edo Period. While the game has sadly fallen out of fashion, it’s worth mentioning due to its peculiar nature. While Obake cards still featured hiragana syllables, they paired these with specific monsters from Japanese folklore and mythology. Rather than act as a simple matching game, Obake Karuta used reading cards containing clues hinting at a particular “monster” or “ghost” (alternative translation of obake).

    Because of that, the game required a good understanding of Japanese mythology, because in order to win, you needed to collect as many “monster cards” as possible.

    If you’re feeling a little sad, knowing that the game has fallen out of fashion, don’t be. While Obake Karuta was an interesting game in its own right, it was also one of the very first examples of Japan’s fascination with monsters and ghouls.

    As such, though the game was last popular 100 years ago, it served as a precursor to other monster-collecting Japanese games, such as Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh!

    Fun fact: Did you know that many Pokemon playing cards were actually based on creatures from Japanese mythology? Were it not for Obake Karuta, one of the most popular game series today might’ve never existed!


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    Beginner Tips for Playing Karuta

    Now, if reading all of that history above has got you in the mood for some rapid, competitive card games (or just some plain old good fun), read on. Below, we look at how you can start playing your very own Karuta variant of choice.

    Tip: If you’re just getting started with this fascinating game world, we recommend starting with the simpler Iroha Karuta option, since Uta-garuta contains a lot more text, which can be confusing for the first-time foreign player.

    Get familiar with hiragana!

    Some players recommend familiarizing yourself with the hiragana syllabary before purchasing a deck, while others suggest that learning hiragana using your new deck can be more engaging. So whichever you do first – learning or buying – is up to you.

    One common misconception about Karuta is that you need to know Japanese to play. You don’t. You do need to learn hiragana, though, and can learn more complex patterns (in order to play Uta-garuta). However, these are best memorized through repetition and don’t require you to start learning the actual Japanese language to be good at the game.

    Where to Get a Karuta Set

    If you’re living abroad, getting your hands on a karuta set might be a bit of a challenge. Of course, by far the easiest way of acquiring your very own set would be to purchase one in Japan. Since karuta games are still wildly popular all across Japan, various decks for Iroha Karuta, Uta-garuta, as well as many of the Portuguese-inspired games, can be easily purchased at general and entertainment stores in Japan.

    The particularities of the set you purchase will determine the price – a basic Iroha Karuta set can be as cheap as $5, while a complex, hand-drawn, or limited edition deck can cost as much as $11,000. So how much you spend really depends on your dedication to the game, but generally, Karuta can be gotten into easily and for cheap.

    Of course, visiting Japan and purchasing a set isn’t an option for everybody, which still leaves you with two options: ordering or making your own. You can order a Karuta deck online from places like PuniPuni Japan, or of course, Amazon.

    Unfortunately, ordering a deck online can cost you a pretty penny, especially if you add up the delivery and customs fees, so many foreigners looking to get into the game are making their own decks.


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    DIY Karuta

    Making your own Karuta deck is quite easy, albeit time-consuming. Using card paper (thicker than traditional paper), you can print out your own Karuta deck from existing templates online, or if you have a keen artistic eye, even design your own.

    Making your own deck can be quite fun, and a learning experience, but will take up a bit of time, if you want to align the cards together on a page, and cut them out individually.

    Tip: If you want even thicker cards (e.g. more sturdy), you may choose to print out the backs for the cards separately, and then glue them together.

    How many players do you need?

    A typical Iroha Karuta game will have one designated reader, and at least two other players. You’re free to play with as many friends as you like.

    A note about your Karuta reader…

    During a game of Iroha Karuta, the reader or “caller” can either be the same designated person throughout or can change from player to player from one round to the next. Traditionally, the reader will remain set throughout, as to allow better concentration, but the most fun games are often the ones where we make up at least some of the rules.

    Learn the Cards!

    Although it’s not necessary to know Japanese to enjoy Iroha Karuta, you will need to familiarize yourself with the short proverbs on the yomifuda and memorize as you can their associated torifuda (image cards).

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    How to Play Karuta

    Now that you have somehow acquired your very own Karuta deck and hopefully know a bit of hiragana, it’s time you got down to the fun stuff!

    Tip: Traditionally, Iroha Karuta is played on a tatami mat, as this adds a certain ceremonial aspect to the game. If you want to keep up with tradition, tatami mats can be purchased at Japanese-specific stores, as well as online. If a tatami mat is outside of your budget or not of main interest to you, we recommend playing on a clean surface (a table or some linen) in order to preserve the cards and have a more enjoyable playing experience.

    1. Spread out all the “grabbing cards”, torifuda, on your playing surface, evenly between the players. All of the cards ought to be fairly spaced out (to facilitate claiming) and be facing up.
    2. The reader then shuffled the “reading cards”, yomifuda, and selects a random card, which they then read out.
    3. The players then scramble to locate the appropriate torifuda, and touch it, thus claiming it.
    4. The game ends when cards have run out, and the player with most torifuda wins.

    Tip: If playing Iroha Karuta with children, you could also flash them the yomifuda, so that they might better associate the Kana symbol at the top corner of the card with its twin in the torifuda pack.

    Looking to play Uta-garuta?

    As we mentioned, Japan’s unique poetry cards are a lot more challenging, especially for foreigners with no knowledge of the Japanese language. However, they can constitute a lovely introduction to Japanese culture, be more rewarding to win, and furnish you with a basic knowledge of some Japanese words.

    Playing Uta-garuta follows much the same pattern, with the learning phase being a little more complex. As with Iroha Karuta, you don’t need to know Japanese. However, you will need to spend some time learning the card associations.

    It’s not as hard as it may sound, the cards are quite easy to associate – for instance, when you hear the card that starts with “Se”, you’ll know to reach for the card that continues with “Wa re”.

    There are more in-depth guides (as well as helpful videos) online to facilitate learning Uta-garuta. As with Iroha Karuta, learn by repetition. Generally, when you’ve learned even just 10 of the 100 poems, you can start playing. Playing even with a meagre understanding of the poems can be extremely helpful, and go a long way towards learning the full game.

    Look for competitions

    Finally, when you have moved past the basic training games and are starting to feel pretty confident in your Karuta skills, you may start looking for competitions (local and online).

    Karuta competitions are quite popular in Japan, of course, so if you’re planning a visit, you may want to set aside some time to attend a proper competition. Be warned, however, that these can get quite intense.


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    Final Thoughts: Is it worth it?

    Card games have been a distinctive feature in our collective history for hundreds of years. Learning a card game from across the world isn’t only an interesting exercise for the brain, but also a good reminder of the many things that unite us, across the world. If you're looking for a unique way to spice up your Japanese study and make it more of a collaborative effort, Karuta is a great place to start!

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