Karuta (かるた)

"Karuta" (in Chinese characters, written as "歌留多," "加留多," "嘉留太," or "骨牌") is a kind of a Japanese game using picture cards. The name karuta originated from the Portuguese word "carta" which means a letter, a paper board or the like, a playing card, and so on.

Originally, karuta was a general term for card games including playing cards. In present Japan, karuta means "hanafuda" (cards with a printed picture of a flower), or the game mentioned below in which players compete for accumulating the most number of picture cards corresponding to "yomifuda" (cards for calling).

About "hyakunin isshu" (one hundred Japanese poems by one hundred poets), which is also called "uta garuta" (Japanese poem cards), a Japanese poem is written on yomifuda and the poem's latter half is written on "torifuda" (picture cards for touching).


Both yomifuda and torifuda correspond to the Japanese syllabary, and there exists one pair of yomifuda and torifuda for each syllable.

A short phrase (or sentence) - for example, a proverb - is written on it, and a person calling the card - in many cases, an adult - reads it aloud.

On this, a picture about the yomifuda's contents is portrayed and the first syllable of the yomifuda's phrase (or sentence) is written. And the players try to collect torifuda faster than others when the yomifuda is called.


The game is played with two or more participants.

All torifuda are pkaced on a flat surface - in many cases, on "tatami" (floor mats for Japanese-style rooms) - so that they can be seen easily by the players.

A person calls yomifuda.

Players try to touch (flip, or - in some cases - seize) torifuda corresponding to yomifuda as soon as possible. The player who is the first to touch the right torifuda gets it.

The process above is repeated until all yomifuda and torifuda are gone.

The player who gets the most torifuda wins.

This game also serves as a way for a child to learn the Japanese syllabary.


The word "karuta" originated from Portuguese, but the game itself, similar to karuta, is thought to have existed in Japan before contact with Portugal. That is 'kaioi' (or 'kaiawase'), a game played during the Heian period pairing the two pieces of a clamshell. And this, combined with a card game originating in Europe, became the present game during the Genroku era.

Classical Karuta Cards in Order of "Iroha" (the Traditional Japanese Syllabary)

The most classical and famous karuta cards are those corresponding to traditional Japanese syllabary.

A proverb is on each card, and the proverb differs from place to place, though the syllable is the same. For example, "Kamigata" (Kyoto and Osaka area), "Edo" (Kanto area) and "Owari" (Aichi area) each use a different proverb. The proverb symbolizes each community's cultural characteristics. The Edo version begins with the card that says, 'Inu mo arukeba bo ni ataru' (The dog that trots about finds a bone).

The cards shown below are the traditional ones. Some of the cards sold on the market as of 2008 are replacements for the old ones.
About the Edo version, the cards that had a difficult or obsolete expession were replaced:
For example, the card that said, 'Tsukiyo ni kama wo nukareru,' which literally means, 'The cauldron was stolen in the moonlight night,' - the English equivalent is, 'Danger comes soonest when it is despised,' - was replaced with the card that says, 'Tsuki to suppon' (As different as day and night). And the card that said, 'Soryo no jinroku' (First born, least clever), was replaced with the card that says, 'Son shite toku tore' (Make it your strategy to win by losing). Similarly, the card that said, 'Imo no nieta mo gozonji nai,' which literally means, 'He cannot judge whether the potatoes have got boiled,' - the English equivalent is nonexistent but this can be said a disparaging expression about a person who is not aware of what is taking place under its very nose - and the card that said, 'Ko wa sangai no kubikase' (Children suck the mother when they are young, and the father when they are old), were both replaced, too.
And a card that included a vulgar expression was also replaced:
For example, the card that said, 'He wo hitte shiri tsubomeru,' which literally means, 'To try to close the anus after breaking the wind,' - the English equivalent is, 'It is too late to cast an anchor when the ship is on the rocks,' - was replaced with the card that says, 'Heta no naga dangi' (Brevity is the soul of wit) [This proverb is borrowed from Kamigata]. In addition, a card that had overtones of discrimination was replaced. Ryoyaku wa kuchi ni nigashi' (Advice is seldom welcome), was originally a card from the old Japanese syllable orthography of 're,' but it has now become a card of the modern Japanese syllable orthography of 'ri,' so the former 'ri' card which said, 'Richigimono no kodakusan,' which literally means, 'Honest and hardworking men have many children,' - the English equivalent is nonexistent - was eliminated. There are pros and cons about these changes in karuta that reflect the times.

Other Karuta Cards in Order of Iroha

All over Japan, various karuta cards exist in which the traditions and the features of the local community are expressed. The typical one is "Jomo karuta," which is popular throughout Gunma Prefecture. Moreover, dialect karuta (with a compact disc) is on sale all over Japan, for example in the Hokkaido dialect and in the Tsugaru dialect.

In addition, many kinds of kids' karuta are also put on the market, that feature characters from comic books or animated cartoons.

Karuta Cards with Themes Taken from a Literary Work

Konjiki Yasha (The golden demon)

[Original Japanese]