Japanese American Traditions

Hanafuda: Mysteries of a Japanese Card Game

At first glance, the simple cards bearing images of flowers would hardly seem controversial.

But they were once banned in Japan.

Hanafuda (“flower cards”) is a card game that evolved from Western playing cards. Often used in gambling, and popularized by the Yakuza (Japanese organized crime) in the late 19th century, Hanafuda has been a subject of fascination for generations.

Entertaining, and highly addictive, Hanafuda puts a Japanese spin on playing cards: unlike Western-style cards, the Hanafuda cards contain no numbers. Instead, the 48 cards in the deck use pictures of flowers and plants. The deck is organized in 12 suits, one for each month of the year, and the types of plants represent the months in which they bloom in Japan.

The colorful cards are thicker than Western-style cards, and Japanese players are known to enjoy the “smacking” sound that the cards make when they are slapped together.

A number of different game formats can be played with the cards, employing varying degrees of difficulty and methods for scoring. Remembering the values of the types of cards can be somewhat disorienting at first (with no numbers on the cards to use for reference), but they are easily mastered. The traditional number of players is three, although the game can accommodate as many as six. Other styles of Hanafuda, such as “Honeymoon Hanafuda,” call for two players.

While today Hanafuda is played by young and old as a social activity, it was memorably featured in a 1969 Japanese film, Red Peony Gambler: Flower Cards Match (a.k.a. Hibotan Bakuto: Hanafuda Shobu) in an edgier context. The film starred actress Junko Fuji (described by one reviewer as “Audrey Hepburn with a sword and tattoo”) as a Hanafuda player and female Yakuza member who fights villainous opponents in gambling parlors in the 1890s. Red Peony Gambler enjoys a strong international cult following.

Another noteworthy aspect of the game’s history is that a small company was formed in 1889 in Kyoto for the specific purpose of producing Hanafuda cards. The company, founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi, was named Nintendo Koppai—and a century later it evolved into a titan in the video game industry: Nintendo.

Hanafuda’s influence outside of Japan has also been remarkable. Variations of the game are widely played in Korea and Hawaii. (In the latter, it is also sometimes known as Hanafura.)

Part game and part legend—and great fun—Hanafuda remains the “flower card game” that is always in bloom.

October 2006

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