The Bond of Competition - Hanafuda

Japan began making its own playing cards in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600) based on the karuta brought by the Portuguese decades earlier. The first Japanese set of cards is now known as Tensho cards, after the Tensho era of the Azuchi-Momoyama period during which they were produced.

Playing cards steadily gained popularity among Japanese of all classes. As playing cards became a part of Japanese daily life, they came to be seen as more of a problem than a pastime. In the Edo period (1603-1868), playing cards came to be associated with gambling, and, allegedly, not only gamblers and commoners, but also government officials could be found indulging in these card games. The period’s governing body, the Tokugawa shogunate, took the step of banning production of certain cards. However, in spite of the government efforts to regulate them, playing card designs evolved, becoming what we currently recognize as Hanafuda, the 八八花 (hachihachihana) by as early as the late Edo period.

The difference between playing cards based on Portuguese decks and the ones used for Hanafuda is obvious. The four suits and their numbered components, the elements of cards that were strongly associated with gambling, were omitted in favor of natural motifs representing different months of the year. Most of the months contain 2 kasu (plain), 1 tanzaku (ribbon) and 1 tane (animal) and/or hikari (bright).

In the Meiji period (1868- 1912), a small Hanafuda producer opened up shop in Kyoto under the name Nintendo. So, in a way, Mario, Peach, Link, and Zelda all owe their existence to Hanafuda, and many of their new decks feature their famous characters!

Other variants of Hanafuda sets include regional versions, specialized sets for related games, and international sets, for the versions of the game played in Hawaii and Korea.

Hanafuda makes frequent appearances in popular culture: Demon Slayer’s Tanjiro wears Hanafuda earrings, there is a dramatic game of Koikoi in 2009’s Summer Wars, and the Korean version, Go-Stop, can be seen in the recent film Minari.

Hanafuda Games

There are many variations of hanafuda games since hanafuda was popular in different regions; however, the most popular of all is Koikoi, since it is so easy to play.

Rules of Koikoi:

Koikoi is a card game in which players race to complete winning sets, not unlike Go Fish or Rummy. Each player is dealt a hand of eight cards, while in between them are eight more cards, face up. Players take turns picking a card from the deck and using the cards in their hand to match the cards in the center in order to build those winning sets, with scores increasing depending on the rarity of the cards in the set. The mechanic that makes Koikoi special, and that gives the game its name (which translates roughly to, “Bring it on!”), is a player’s decision once they have completed a set: the player may take the point(s) for that set and initiate a new round, or they may call, “Koikoi,” and resume play on the same round, with the aim of completing more sets for higher point totals. This decision comes with the risk, however, of their opponent completing their own set(s) and choosing to end the round, at which point the first player’s points are nullified and the opponent gets whatever points they earned from their set(s)! A game consists of 3, 6, or 12 of such rounds (players’ preference), and the player with the most total points at the end wins.

Koikoi Strategy

There are multiple paths to victory in Koikoi. While accumulating points through sets is important, it is crucial that you not let your opponent beat you to the finish line and end the round before you complete the set(s) you are working on. Fortunately, players must show all the cards they have taken—the only hidden cards are the players’ hands—so it is possible to read your opponent’s intention and try to block them by taking cards they would want before they are able to.

Sometimes you will have no matches in your hand, or there will be no cards in the center to match. At these times, when you must place one of your cards in the middle, it is vital to read your opponent’s intention and make sure you do not give them the exact card they need to win.

Furthermore, there will be times when you have the chance to complete multiple valuable sets, but you need to wait for certain cards to appear. In these cases, it is important to remember a Japanese expression 二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず, “A person who chases two rabbits won’t even get one.” It can be important to know when to abandon a plan in favor of what becomes more likely through your opponent’s moves and the luck of the draw.

Mystery of Ono no Michikaze -The Umbrella Man

One of the more enigmatic suits in Hanafuda is the four November cards. With all other suits, there are multiple plain cards that are represented by a plant of the month, while November’s plain card does not contain its own representative plant, the willow. Rather, it is depicted by the hand of a Japanese demon (oni) forming a bolt of lightning. The mood of the card is so ominous that this card stands completely alone in the deck in terms of visual appearance.

The other mysterious card in the November suit shows a man holding an umbrella under a willow tree watching a frog trying to jump up to a dangling branch. The man is Ono no Michikaze, an aristocrat who was praised as one of the three best calligraphers in the Heian period (794-1185). As the Edo period gave way to the Meiji period, Michikaze’s depiction replaced the card with a man running in a thunderstorm with an umbrella over his head. The subject of this prior design was a fictional character from Kabuki theatre, Ono Sadakurō, who was played by the famous eighteenth-century actor Nakamura Nakazō I. Ono Sadakurō in the play was a crass, violent, lawless man; however, the actor was reputed to be a very handsome, elegant man, and hence the character became popular, particularly among women. At the dawn of the Meiji period, it is said that Hanafuda makers adopted Ono no Michikaze in an attempt to appeal to the general public and the government with a more palatable and sophisticated subject.

Michikaze was said to be a poor student of calligraphy as a young boy. When he saw a frog endlessly trying to reach the branch of a willow tree, he was inspired by its determination and became determined to master calligraphy. It was the Hanafuda maker’s homage to the previous design to use a subject who shared the family name of Ono (in sound, at least: the Kabuki character’s name means “ax,” while the latter Ono is made of the characters for “small field”).