Hanafuda cards first appeared in Japan in the middle of the Edo period (江戸, 1603–1868). The distant origins of Hanafuda cards lie in older “object-matching games” (物合わせ mono-awase) that had been played since the Heian period (平安, 794–1185). These were courtly competitions in which various objects were compared as to their qualities or unique attributes:Although the same terminology of awase was also used for sports such as cock-fighting.a[165] objects that were judged in these competitions included artifacts such as fans or paintings; flowers and plants (chrysanthemums, iris roots,a[163] wild pinks); animals (insects, songbirdsa[163]); incense; teab[26]; or shells. The most esteemed of these competitions were the poetry match (歌合 uta-awase) and the painting competition (絵合せ e-awase).

Girls in elaborate traditional Japanese dress sitting in a circle around shells that are arranged face-down on the floor.
Girls playing a game of kai-awase.
From Gifts from the Ebb Tide 潮干のつと (1790), by Kitagawa Utamaro (喜多川歌麿).

(Metropolitan Museum of Art 🅮)
A grandmother, a mother, two young women, and a child sitting in a circle around shells on a tatami mat.
Four generations of women playing kai-awase.
From 女有職莩文庫 (1866), by Okada Tamayama (岡田玉山).

(跡見学園女子大学 🅮)

From these comparing competitions, the kai-awase (貝合わせ, ‘shell matching’) game was developed into a different style of game, based upon collecting matching pairs of shells.In this form it became known as kai-ōi (貝覆い, ‘shell cover’), and Takahashi Hironori draws a distinction between the two games.c However, kai-awase is still the most commonly-used term for the matching game, so I continue to use it here.

In one form of the game, the left-hand sides of the shells — also termed the “male” or ‘ground’ () shells — were arranged face-down on the ground. The right-hand sides — the “female” or ‘coming out’ () shells — were then drawn from their storage-bucket one-by-one and the players would attempt to match them with those on the floor.

The game must have been difficult, since the only clues to a match were the subtle shades and contours of the shell. The only way to test if shells truly matched was to pick them up and attempt to join them together. Considering that traditional kai-awase sets contained up to 360 shells,Modern replicas usually only have around 54. this was a game for a class of person who had a lot of leisure time on their hands.

Later the interior of the shells became elaborately painted or even gilded, often illustrating scenes from the Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji monogatari) — the game is also played in Chapter 45 of the novel itself. Other designs included shells with half of a poem in each, so that the matching pair could be read as a complete poem. These elaborate sets with their hand-painted and gilded interiors must have been expensive to create and only owned by richest of families.

Two large octagonal wooden containers painted with black lacquer and gold ornamental designs of wisteria.
Eight shells whose interiors have been painted with garden scenes and ornamented with gold.
An 18th-century kai-awase set. The paired boxes are called kai-oke (貝桶, ‘shell buckets’), and half of each shell pair was stored in each bucket. The shells are decorated with painted scenes.
(Portland Art Museum 🅮)

A personal set kai-awase became part of a noble bride’s wedding gifts, as the joining of the matching shells was symbolic of the joining of husband and wife in marriage. In this role, depictions of kai-awase can be found in hina-matsuri collections, and miniature kai-oke can still be purchased today.

Detail of the miniature kai-oke in the print.
A miniature kai-oke can be seen in this depiction of a hina-matsuri set.
By Okumura Masanobu (奥村政信, 1686–1764).

Hanafuda seem to originate in a combination of the themes of kai-awase — matching sets, poetry, conventionalized art — with the ideas introduced by the Portuguese playing cards — a regular structure of suits divided into different ranks.

These two distinct schools of playing-card games first combined in the form of hana-awase decks. These early 18th century ancestors of Hanafuda (such as the deck below) show a very regular configuration of cards for each flower, which evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries into the unusual configuration of the Hanafuda deck.

Some of the cards from a hana-awase deck produced circa 1704 (at least before 1710). The deck originally contained 400 cards but many are missing, and the extant deck contains cards from several original decks. Note the chrysanthemum with sake cup in the third card on the top row.
2019 JPCM, with permission)

While decks such as the above are obviously for a different style of game, most of the imagery that would become part of the hanafuda deck was already present.

Some time after its introduction, the game was restricted as part of a total ban on gambling introduced during the Kansei ReformsDuring the Kansei Reforms, gambling was prohibited by the 博奕賭ノ勝負禁止ノ儀ニ付触書, promulgated by Matsudaira Sadanobu on the 12th of January, 1788.d[44] (1787–1793). This ban was to remain in place until 1886, when Maeda Kihei (前田喜兵衛) decided to open a store selling Hanafuda.

Things had begun to change in 1885, after a ban on Western playing cards (西洋かるた seiyō karuta) was lifted due to complaints from foreign officials.e[189–92] Maeda KiheiKihei appears to have been something of a rogue: he is somewhat infamous in the philately community for selling collections of counterfeit stamps to unsuspecting tourists. became convinced through his reading of legal texts that the selling of Hanafuda was not actually prohibited, and he moved to Tōkyō in December 1885 with a plan to open a Hanafuda shop. However, he found that the local landlords refused to let to him, believing his business illegal, and he was unable to convince newspapers to print his advertisements. In order to prove himself correct, he came up with a cunning plan: he officially petitioned the Tōkyō police to ban the sale of Hanafuda. His petition was declined, the court stating that the sale of Hanafuda was legal, and later that month he opened his first shop in the Sumiyoshi neighbourhood,Sumiyoshi-chō was an Edo-period red light district and the birthplace of the Sumiyoshi-kai yakuza organization.f The area was destroyed along with most of the rest of Nihonbashi in the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923; the location where Sumiyoshi-chō existed is now part of Nihon-bashi Ningyō-chō 2–chōme (人形町二丁目). (住吉町) on Ningyōchō street (人形町通り) in Tōkyō’s Nihonbashi district (日本橋). The shop was named “Kamigataya” (上方屋, ‘Kyōto region store’).e[189–92]

A Japanese storefront, open to the street, with many placards depicting Western cards along with Hanafuda.
A newspaper advertisement depicting the outside of the Ginza Kamigataya store, 1889. (🅮)
An image of a Japanese street with lots of signs and flags for stores
In this early 20th century postcard, another branch of Kamigataya can be seen on the left, identified by the large die; this one is in Motomachi in Yokohama. (🅮)

Kamigataya was the first store to openly sell Hanafuda. A month later, Kihei opened a second branch of Kamigataya in the Ginza (銀座) district, which became instantly successful. Once the viability of Hanafuda had been proven, other manufacturers appeared quickly: the company that was later to become Nintendo began producing Hanafuda cards in 1889. Other companies such as Ōishi Tengudō claim to have been operating discreetly during the prohibition period; in their case behind the doors of a rice merchant named Minatoya (湊屋).g

Despite the ending of prohibition, Hanafuda retained a poor reputation, and gambling with the cards remained illegal. In 1892, Korekata Kojima (児島惟謙, 1837–1908), who was the head of Japan’s supreme court (大審院 daishinin), was accused along with five other supreme court judges of gambling with Hanafuda (弄花, rōka). Despite a lack of evidence, Kojima accepted ‘moral responsibility’ for the scandal and resigned his position.

In 1902 a stamp duty was introduced that was inspired by similar taxes imposed in Western countries; the effect being to raise the cost of cards (and thereby discourage their use) but to also raise tax revenue. The tax imposed was crushing: 20 sen per set,The sen () was a unit of currency representing 1⁄100 of a yen. in a time when cheap Hanafuda decks could be had for as little as 2–3 sen. The effect on card manufacturers was “dire”, as Rebecca Salter puts it.h[186] Japanese Hanafuda scholar Ebashi Takashi (江橋崇) states that the law led to the closure of many small producers, and made it much harder for new manufacturers to enter the industry; both due to the tax itself as well as onerous record-keeping and inspection requirements.i

Art of the Cards

The culture of the Edo period in which Hanafuda cards appeared was heavily influenced by the aristocratic culture of the earlier Heian period. As such, the art of the cards abounds with references to Heian period literature, festivals, and artistic tropes:

With the exception of the peony, which entered the poetic canon in the Edo period, all the images are from classical poetry of the Heian period and reflect urban commoners’ knowledge of the poetic and cultural associations of the months.j[l. 1739–41]

While nominally the cards start in ‘January’, at the time the deck was created Japan’s calendar was based upon the lunisolar Chinese calendar, which started in what is now February. This explains why ‘March’ is the month of the cherry blossom when — according to the current calendar — it should be April,In Kyoto from the 11th to 13th centuries, the average peak of the cherry blossom season was April 17th.j[l. 484] and why ‘August’ shows the full moon when the full moon festival (月見 tsukimi) actually falls in September–October.

However, even with these modifications the eleventh (willow) and twelfth (paulownia) months are in the wrong place. The eleventh month depicts rain, willows, and a frog, all of which are associated with summer.

Artistically, the cards derive from the kachō-ga (花鳥画 ‘flower and bird image’) tradition. Artworks in this style often have poems written upon them, and these appear on some cards of the Echigo-bana pattern.

Art in the kachō-ga style: a selection of prints from the series Forty-Eight Hawks Drawn From Life
生うつし四十八鷹 (1859), by Nakayama Sūgakudō

(Boston Museum of Fine Arts 🅮)

Hanafuda Patterns

A playing-card ‘pattern’ is a common set of designs that has been used by multiple different manufacturers over a period of time. With hanafuda there is now one primary or “standard” pattern: all other patterns are referred to as ‘local cards’ (地方札 chihōfuda), and considered to be specific to a particular region. Most of these are of historical interest only and are no longer manufactured, and there is little information about how gameplay differed in different regions.

Standard (Hachihachi-bana)

The standard pattern is now one that is called hachihachi-bana (八八花/八々花), since it was primarily used to play the game 八八 ‘88’. Almost all decks use this pattern, and images from it are used to show the cards of each month below.

The 5 Bright cards of the hachihachi-bana pattern, from a Nintendo deck.

Korean deck differences

Korean decks are also based on the hachi­hachi­-bana pattern, but the ribbons are usually blue instead of purple, and there is Korean text on the standard three red ribbons (labelled 홍단, hongdan ‘crimson ribbon’) and all three blue ribbons (청단, cheongdan ‘blue ribbon’).

Six Hwatu cards showing ribbons with Korean text written on them.
Korean Hwatu cards with ribbons.

There are also differences in the ‘rain man’ (see below), and depending on the deck, other aspects of the cards can also be translated into Korean cultural terms. For example, the lesser cuckoo of the Japanese cards is in some decks the Oriental magpie, which is the national bird of Korea.

Two hwatu-format cards: the left shows cherry blossoms with a Korean magpie that has a blue chest with black and yellow wings, while the right shows cherry blossoms with a lesser cuckoo that has a yellow body and green wings.
The 무지개 (mujigae, ‘rainbow’) brand Hwatu deck (on left) features a Korean magpie (까치 kkachi), instead of the usual lesser cuckoo as shown on the Daiso Hwatu-format deck.
Two Hanafuda cards, the first depicting a man wearing Japanese dress, the second wearing Korean.
The ‘rain man’ wears traditional clothing in both Japanese and Korean decks. The Japanese man (left) wears a Heian period courtier’s daily outfit (狩衣 kariginu), with tall tate-eboshi (楯烏帽子) hat, and very tall rain-clogs (足駄 ashida) on his feet. The Korean man is wearing a noble’s gat () hat, and an outer coat with very large sleeves.


The regional Echigo-bana (越後花 ‘Echigo flowers’) pattern is based on designs that are older than the standard pattern. The most obvious difference is that all the cards are overpainted with gold and silver in various patterns.

Five hanafuda cards which are overpainted in silver and gold paints in various patterns, obscuring the details.
The 5 Brights of the Echigo-bana pattern, by Ōishi Tengudō.

Some of the kasu cards also carry short poems (短歌 tanka). Poetry is a common sight on traditional Japanese art — as seen on the kachō-ga prints above — and often provides more context to the images. The poems of the Echigo-bana will be explained below.


The Echigo-kobana (越後小花 ‘Echigo small flowers’) pattern is similar to the Echigo-bana, but with very small cards measuring approximately 3 cm × 4.5 cm (1⅛″ × 1¾″).

Five hanafuda cards which are overpainted in silver and gold paints in various patterns, obscuring the details.
The 5 Brights of the Echigo-kobana pattern, by Ōishi Tengudō.

Because of the small size, there are no poems on this deck. However, it does contain four extra cards. Any special rules for the deck, including the use of these extra cards, are unknown — Ōishi Tengudō even includes a note with every deck sold asking for anyone who knows the rules to contact them!

Four hanafuda cards, one with a picture of a Tengu and manfacturer’s name, the rest with a stylized depection of a spearman.
The four extra cards of an Echigo-kobana deck by Ōishi Tengudō.


A Hanafuda card depicting a red boy carrying an axe, and wearing a shirt with the character for ‘gold’ on it.
The Kintoki card, by Ōishi Tengudō. He is depicted carrying an axe and wearing a shirt with the character (kin, ‘gold’) on it.

This is another regional pattern called Awa­-bana (阿波花) or Kintoki­-bana (金時花). It originated in Awa province, in what is now Tokushima prefecture.

Like the Echigo-bana pattern, some of the Awa-­bana carry poems (in fact, they carry the same poems). The deck also contains an extra card which features the titular Kintoki (金時), a legendary strong-boy also known as Kintarō.

Five hanafuda cards with bright colours and overpainted with silver.
The 5 Brights of the Awa-bana pattern, by Ōishi Tengudō.

Modern/Novelty decks

In addition to the above, there are also many modern revisions or novelty decks that do not conform to any one of the traditional patterns. More information and examples of these can be found in the article about new Hanafuda manufacturers.

Cards in Depth

1月 — pine ( matsu)

A card with a red moon, a crane, and pine trees.
A card with pine trees and a red tanzaku with writing.
A card with pine trees.
A card with pine trees.
The cards for January feature pine trees. There is one bright card, one tanzaku card (with text), and two kasu cards.
A kimono featuring pine trees and cranes on the back of a large turtle.
An elaborate 19th century kimono with Mount Hōrai pattern: plum and pine trees with cranes, atop a large turtle.
(MFA 🅮)

The bright card for January shows a crane and pine trees, with the sun rising in the background. Both the crane and the pine are symbols of longevity, so they are a common combination in Japanese art; the mythical Mount Hōrai, dwelling-place of immortals, is depicted as wooded with pine trees and populated by cranes.

The pine is associated with winter and snow, so these cards show the lingering influence of winter during the new year. The traditional held on the first Day of the Rat of the new year (子の日の宴 nenohi no en) involved uprooting small pine trees.a[168]

The text on the tanzaku reads akayoroshi あ𛀙よろし.The writing on the tanzaku uses a rare hentaigana character for ka, which is usually written . It may not render correctly on your device. This means ‘red/good’ and was an older name of a hachi-hachi yaku which is now called akatan.The meaning of this phrase is usually said to be “unclear”, even by Hanafuda manufacturers. Some derive a meaning like ‘clearly good’ based on reading aka as a short form of akiraka ni (‘clearly’). However, old listings of yaku show akayoroshi alongside aoyoroshi (‘blue/good’) indicating that aka should be read straightforwardly as (‘red’).

The kasu cards of the Echigo-bana pattern which bear the poem.
Echigo-bana kasu cards, with tanka.
The kasu cards of the Awa-bana pattern which bears a poem.
An Awa-bana kasu card, with a shortened version of the same tanka (the other kasu card bears the same phrases).

In the Echigo-bana and Awa-bana patterns, the kasu cards carry a tanka composed by Mina­moto no Mune­yukiMina­moto no Mune­yuki (d. 983) was a Heian era poet, and named one of the ‘Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry’. (源宗于) at a poetry competition organized by the Empress during the reign of Emperor Uda (宇多天皇). It is featured as Poem 24 in the ‘Spring’ section of the Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集 “Collection of Old and New Poems”):


Even the verdure
of foliage on the pine tree,
“ever unchanging”,
deepens into new richness
now that springtime has arrived.l[18]

The kasu cards of the Awa­-bana also carry a portion of the same poem.

2月 — plum ( ume)

The cards for February feature plum trees in blossom. There is one tane card, one tanzaku card (with text), and two kasu cards. The text on the tanzaku is the same as that on January’s.

The bush warbler/plum blossom combination has been associated with the arrival of spring since early times, dating at least from the Man’yōshū (万葉集 ‘Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves’), a book of poetry compiled during the Nara period sometime after 759.j[loc. 978] At this time, the plum blossom was the favourite flower; cherry blossoms would only become more favoured during the Heian period.j[loc. 997]

The bush warbler was famed for its song, as shown by this poem from Ōe no Chisato (大江千里), composed during a competition in the Kanpyō era (889–898). The first cry of the bush warbler was considered to announce the beginning of spring:


Without the voice of the warbler that comes out of the valley, how would we know the arrival of spring?j[loc. 952]

The kasu cards of the Echigo-bana pattern which bear the poem.
Echigo-bana kasu cards, with tanka.

The poem on the Echigo-bana kasu cards (the origin of which is unknown) also describes the call of the bush warbler. Note that while the poem must be describing white plum blossoms (白梅 hakubai), all Hanafuda patterns depict red plum blossoms (紅梅 kōbai), which became more popular later on:


The nightingale’s
Song is clear
And the white plum blossom
Becomes lost
In the falling snow.k[99]

3月 — cherry ( sakura)

The cards for March show the famous cherry blossoms of Japan. There is one bright card, one tanzaku card (with text), and two kasu cards.
A picture of three women and a man consuming heated sake under a cherry tree in blossom, while surrounded by striped curtains.
Third Month: Blossom-Viewing in Askukayama
三月 飛鳥山花見
by Kitao Shigemasa (北尾 重政, 1739–1820).

(Library of Congress 🅮)

The tanzaku of the March cards reads miyoshino みよしの ‘beautiful Yoshino’.Some older cards have variations on this phrase, like みよし𛂙, 美よし𛂙, or みよし𛂜. Other phrases seen on the cherry tanzaku include す𛀙𛂦𛃰 (すがわら sugawara), or 宇良す (うらす urasu). Both of these are references to the Hachi-Hachi yakuうらすがわら’ (urasugawara). This is a reference to the mountainous area of Yoshino (吉野) in Nara prefecture, which is famous for its cherry blossoms.

A mountain covered in cherry blossom trees showing light pink blooms, amongst other dark green trees.
The Yoshino mountainside with cherry trees in bloom.
2010 ゆぼ 🅭 🅯 🄏 ⊜)

Blossom-viewing (花見 hanami), parti­cularly of cherry blossoms, is a custom that dates back to the Heian period. The curtains ( maku) that are shown on the bright card provide privacy whilst viewing cherry blossoms. An example of their use can be seen in the image on the right. It was common to use striped fabric, particularly in red & white, while nobility would use curtains bearing their family crest.

4月 — wisteria ( fuji)

The cards for April show the drooping branches of wisteria. There is one tane card, one red tanzaku card, and two kasu cards.

The cards for April are also nicknamed ‘black bean’ (黒豆 kuromame), due to their appearance. This month shows the transition from spring to summer; the lesser cuckoo (ホトトギス hototogisu) is a bird of summer,j[l. 1065] while wisteria is associated with the end of spring.j[l. 1021] Like the bush warbler and spring, the first cry of the cuckoo was considered to announce the beginning of summer.

The cuckoo swooping in front of the moon is a common motif in Japanese art. It is tempting to claim that this may be a reference to the tale of Yorimasa from the Heike Monogatari,m[161–3] but the oldest decks do not have a moon on this card.

The kasu cards of the Echigo-bana pattern which bear the poem.
Echigo-bana kasu cards, with tanka.

The tanka on the kasu cards is similar to Poem 135 from the Summer section of the Kokinshū.The poem on the card differs slightly in that the last line starts with ima ya 今や instead of itu ka いつか.k[100] This poem (perhaps written by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro 柿本 人麻呂) again focuses on the transition from spring (represented by wisteria) to summer (represented by the arrival of the cuckoo):


At my home
On the pond wisteria waves
Are breaking:
Mountain cuckoo,
When might you come and sing?

Cascades of flowers
bloom on the wisteria
by my garden lake.
When might the mountain cuckoo
come with his melodious song?

5月 — iris (菖蒲 ayame)

The cards for May depict iris flowers. There is one tane card, one red tanzaku card, and two kasu cards.

A nickname for the month is negi (, ‘scallion/leek’).o

The bridge shown on the tane card is a reference to the ‘eight bridges’ (八橋 yatsuhashi) featured in an episode of the Tales of Ise (伊勢物語 Ise Monogatari), in which the unnamed protagonistTraditionally this is presumed to be the poet Ariwara no Narihira (在原 業平). of the story comes across a braided river that is crossed by eight overlapping planks forming a zig-zag bridge. Challenged to compose a poem on the subject “a traveller’s sentiments”, he recites the following:

The kasu cards of the Echigo-bana pattern which bear the poem.
Echigo-bana kasu cards, with tanka.


I have a beloved wife,
Familiar as the skirt
Of a well-worn robe,
And so this distant journeying
Fills my heart with grief.p[74–5]

This poem, which appears in full on the kasu cards of the Echigo-bana pattern,k[100] is in the form of an acrostic; the first letters of each line spell out kakitsuhata かきつはた, which is the name of the Japanese iris (杜若 kakitsubata).Note that at the time this poem was written, written Japanese did not distinguish between ha and ba. Because of this scene, the iris and the planked bridge have a long association in Japan.

Irises at Yatsuhashi
A pair of screens by the artist Ogata Kōrin (尾形光琳, 1658–1716)

6月 — peony (牡丹 botan)

The cards for June show peony flowers. There is one tane card, one blue/purple tanzaku card, and two kasu cards.

7月 — bush clover ( hagi)

The cards for July show bush clover. There is one tanzaku card, one red tanzaku card, and two kasu cards.

The cards for July are also nicknamed ‘red bean’ (赤豆 akamame/小豆 azuki). Bush clover is very strongly associated with autumn — the Japanese character is a composition of ‘autumn’ and (full form ) ‘grass’.

8月 — miscanthus/silvergrass (芒/薄 susuki)

The cards for August show waving fields of miscanthus, also known as silvergrass. There is one bright card, one tane card, and two kasu cards.

The bold moon card is possibly the most well-recognized of all hanafuda cards. It is the standard card chosen as a representive emoji: 🎴

Traditionally, the most important date for moon viewing was the 15th day of the 8th month (中秋観月 chūshū kangetsu);a[176] the full moon always fell on the 15th due to the way the calendar was constructed.a[170]

On printed cards, the fields of grass are often simplified into solid black circles. Because of the resemblance of this to the head of a bald man, one nickname for the cards is ‘baldy’ (坊主 bōzu), a slang term for a Buddhist monk.

Three horsemen crossing a grassy plain at night, while geese fly past the moon.
Famous places in the provinces: Musashi Plain
諸国名所 武蔵野
A woodblock print by Totoya Hokkei (魚屋 北渓, 1780–1850)

(Boston Museum of Fine Arts 🅮)
The kasu cards of the Echigo-bana pattern which bear a poem.
Echigo-bana kasu cards, with tanka.
The kasu cards of the Awa-bana pattern which bears a different portion of the poem.
Awa-bana kasu cards, with reduced form of the tanka.

Fairbairn (1986) says that the poem on the Echigo-bana kasu cards is “untranslatable”, because it has been corrupted. Ebashi believes it is meant to be poem 422 of the Shin Kokinshū, or perhaps a revision of it:


Its destination:
The skies, one with
Musashi Plain, where
From among the fields of grass
Emerges moonlight.

This poem was composed by Fujiwara no Yoshitsune (藤原良経, 1169–1206).

9月 — chrysanthemum ( kiku)

The cards for September show chrysanthemums. There is one tane card, one blue/purple tanzaku card, and two kasu cards.

The tane card for September depicts a sake cup, which is an implement of chōyō 重陽, the chrysanthemum festival, which is held on the 9th day of the 9th month. Because chrysanthemum blooms for a long time, it had become a symbol of long life in China, and the festival was introduced into Japan by the court of Emperor Kanmu (桓武天皇, 735–806).j[l. 1214]

During the festival, chrysanthemum petals are added to sake and consumed. The sake cup pictured on the card has the character 壽/寿 (kotobuki), meaning ‘long life’, written in a cursive script.

A poem by Bashō, Japan’s most famed composer of hokku, commemorates the evening of the 9th day of the 9th month, in 1691. Bashō was staying at the temple Gichu-ji (義仲寺) in a hermitage known as ‘nameless hut’ (無名庵 Mumyō-an). His disciple Kawai Otokuni (河合乙州) came to visit him:


this grass door—
dusk arrives with a present
of chrysanthemum sakes

10月 — autumn leaves/maple (紅葉 momiji/kōyō)

The cards for October show fallen maple leaves. There is one tane card, one blue/purple tanzaku card, and two kasu cards.
Maple trees with their leaves showing a bright red-orange colour.
Maple trees along the banks of the Tatsuta-gawa in autumn.
2010 663highland 🅭 🅯 🄎)

While the leaves on the tane card are attached to a tree, the leaves on the other cards appear to be floating on water. This could be a reference to the Tatsuta river (竜田川), which was as famous for autumn foliage as Yoshino was for cherry blossoms in the spring.j[l. 1756]

The kasu cards of the Echigo-bana pattern which bear the poem.
Echigo-bana kasu cards, with tanka.

The poem on the Echigo-bana kasu cards is Poem 437 from the ‘Autumn 2’ section of the Shin Kokinshū. It was composed by Fujiwara no Ietaka (藤原家隆, 1158–1237), upon the finalization of the poetry collection:t[318]


From the lower branches
Maple leaves scatter
In Autumn showers on the mountain.
Is it because he is wet
That the lonely stag is belling?

11月 — willow ( yanagi)

The cards for November show willow trees. There is one bright card, one tane card, one red tanzaku card, and one kasu card.

The month of November is also often referred to as ‘rain’ ( ame) or ‘drizzle’ (時雨 shigure). These cards have a strange relationship to the others — in many games they have special powers, or they are valued lower than the cards of other months. For example, the bright of November will often score less than the other four brights, and in some games the “lightning card” has special powers, such as being able to match any other card.

The man pictured on the bright card is the poet Ono no Michikaze (小野道風), who is considered to be one of the founders of Japanese calligraphy. The jumping frog recalls an episode in his life: he had failed seven times to achieve a promotion, and was considering abandoning his attempts. One day, walking beside a stream, he saw a frog attempting to jump onto a willow branch. Seven times it jumped, and seven times it failed. On the eighth attempt, the frog reached the branch successfully. Michikaze was thus inspired to persevere with his attempts.w[86–7]

On older decks a different “rain man” is pictured. On these cards the man is running in the rain with the umbrella closed around his head. This feature is preserved in the Echigo-bana pattern.

A card with a picture of a figure carrying an umbrella and walking away from the viewer; the figure has a fluffy orange tail.
The Echigo-kobana “rain man” appears to be some kind of animal.

On the Echigo-kobana’s “rain man” card, the figure has a bushy tail and appears to be either a kitsune, a Japanese fox/spirit; or a tanuki, the raccoon-dog. I am not sure of the significance of this.

The “lightning card” mentioned above is the red-coloured kasu card, which is usually called the ogre card in Japanese (鬼札 onifuda). The drums, which are visible in some patterns, are an attribute of the thunder god Raijin (雷神).

A grinning ogre in a cloud lowers an anchor towards a Taiko drum floating in the ocean.
In this Ōtsu-e, Raijin attempts to recover his drum. (🅮)

In some older decks, the lightning card depicts a scene derived from Ōtsu-e prints (大津絵), where Raijin is attempting to ‘fish’ back a drum that he has dropped.

A dramatic fishing scene, from The Devil’s Picture-Books.
Hands extending from a cloud dangle a hooked rope towards a floating drum.
A key-block print of the Raijin scene, from [y].
A card with hook visible at bottom, from a deck by Hakamada (袴田).
JPCM, with permission)

12月 — paulownia ( kiri)

The cards for December show paulownia flowers. There is one bright card and three kasu cards.
A phoenix bird swoops down onto a paulownia tree.
Phoenix and Paulownia Tree
by Isoda Koryūsai (礒田 湖龍斎, 1735–1790)

(Boston Museum of Fine Arts 🅮)

The phoenix (鳳凰 hōō, or fèng­huáng in Mandarin Chinese) featured on the bright card is from Japanese mythology, and is particularly associated with the empress of Japan. According to legend the phoenix will only land on a paulownia tree. What appear to be ‘spikes’ on the card are really its long tail feathers.

In modern times, the paulownia tree is associated with the government, and in particular prime minister’s office. In (TODO), the manufacturer Ōishi Tengudo produced a special deck for the TODO Prime Minister. In addition, Ōishi Tengudo boxes many of their decks using Paulownia wood.

One of the kasu cards is usually coloured, often yellow, but sometimes with red as well. In some games it becomes a tane card, or even a tanzaku card.

One of the Paulownia cards of the Echigo-kobana pattern has a tanzaku.
The yellow-coloured kasu of the Awa-bana pattern is marked with the red clouds that usually indicate a tane card.

Usually (in Japanese decks) the manufacturer’s mark is on the coloured kasu card, much like the ace of spades is used in European decks. In Korean decks the mark can also be on the full moon card, or on the jokers.


  1. (1964) . . Middlesex, England, UK: Penguin Books. ISBN: 0-14-00-5479-0.
  2. . An Introduction to Japanese Tea Ritual. Albany, NY, USA: SUNY Press. ISBN: 978-0-7914-0749-3.
  3. . ‘’.
  4. . ‘’. Ghent, Belgium: University of Ghent.
  5. . 花札. Tōkyō, Japan: 法政大学出版局.
  6. . ‘’. Jane’s Intelligence Review, December, 2009.
  7. . . ‘’. 大石天狗堂.
  8. . Popular Japanese Prints. Honolulu, Hawaiʻi: University of Hawaiʻi Press. ISBN: 978-0-8248-3083-0.
  9. . ‘’. Japan Playing Card Museum.
  10. . Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons. New York, NY, USA: Columbia University Press. ISBN: 978-0-231-52652-4.
  11. . ‘The Poems of the Echigobana’. Journal of the International Playing-Card Society 14 (4): 97–102.
  12. . Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry. Stanford, CA, USA: Stanford University Press. ISBN: 0804712581.
  13. . . Stanford, CA, USA: Stanford University Press. ISBN: 9780804718035.
  14. . ‘’. Waka Poetry.
  15. . ‘’. Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 19: 545–564.
  16. . Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan. Stanford, CA, USA: Stanford University Press. ISBN: 0804706537.
  17. . ‘’. Waka Poetry.
  18. . ‘’. The Journal of Asian Studies 67 (3): 947–970.
  19. . ‘’. World Kigo Database.
  20. . The Making of Shinkokinshū. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press. ISBN: 9780674008533.
  21. . . ‘’. Ōishi Tengudō.
  22. . ‘’. Japan Playing Card Museum.
  23. . The Animal in Far Eastern Art. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill. ISBN: 9004042954.
  24. . . New York, USA: Dodd, Mead, and Company.
  25. . ‘明治の花札’. 別冊太陽 (9), Winter, 1974.

Audio Credits

All audio is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0. Pronunciations are by: