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Karuta and the Hundred Poets

This week we've been looking at the traditional Japanese card game called karuta. It's a fascinating competitive sport in Japan, which has found increasing popularity owing to a recent manga called Chihayafuru, written and illustrated by Yuki Suetsugu. This popular josei manga (manga aimed at young women) has subsequently been made into a great anime, and three live-action movies starring Suzu Hirose (who we loved in NHK asadora Natsuzora), and Mone Kamishiraishi (who we loved in rom-com Love Lasts Forever)!

What we're especially intrigued by is the link between karuta and a collection of Heian-era poems known as the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu: One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each. Come with us as we find out more!


What is Karuta?

Kai-awase decorated shells

Karuta is a Japanese card game that has its ancestry in kai-awase. Kai-awase is a picture-matching game that was created using detailed illustrations from The Tale of Genji painted inside gilded shells.

E-awase, the picture contest, is another ancestor of karuta. Murasaki Shikibu devotes Chapter 17 of her Heian epic The Tale of Genji to the courtly pastime of judging manuscript illustrations.

From these beautiful foundations, and with the introduction of playing cards by the Portuguese in the 16th century, evolved the picture card version of karuta that young children play today.

Yukki brought us a Totoro version of this game to improve our Japanese! It's a lot of fun!

Yukki's Totoro Karuta Game!



The Heian verse-composing Kyoto Winding Stream Party, which our friend Mai introduced us to, is an antecedent of the poetry-focussed version of the adult game of karuta.

Karuta is a sport requiring poise and concentration, a lightning-speed response to a spoken prompt, and an expert recollection of the compilation of one hundred of the finest Japanese poems: the Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each).

The card game karuta involves two hundred cards which are divided into two sets. One set is called the yomifuda, and each card has one of the complete poems of the Hyakunin Isshu written on it. These are the poems which are chanted out loud. The second set of cards are called the torifuda, and these have only the last lines of the poems written on them. The two players each take 25 of the torifuda and place them face up on the tatami floor, in three rows. The rest of the torifuda are set aside, not in play. When one of the yomifuda is chanted out loud, the players have to find the torifuda with the last lines of the relevant poem as fast as possible and swipe it away. The person with the most cards at the end is the winner.


One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each (Hyakunin Isshu)

Ogurayama Hyakunin Isshu, early Edo Period.

One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each (Hyakunin Isshu) is a private collection of poems dating to about 1230 which were compiled by Fujiwara no Teika, a scholar, calligrapher, and poet of the late Heian/early Kamakura era . They are the best-loved and most widely read poems in all Japanese literature, owing in part to their place as an essential part of the Japanese secondary school curriculum.

Their enduring popularity is also in part because the compiler, Fujiwara no Teika, was the most admired poet of his time. He is represented by one poem in the collection too - Poem 97 - although legend has it he had to be persuaded to add his own poetic mastery :)

Fujiwara no Teika is of immense importance. It is believed that our oldest versions of The Tale of Genji were transcribed by him, as the original manuscript of the story no longer exists.

Tenarai Hyakunin Isshu by Kitao Masayoshi.

The popularity of the Hyakunin Isshu has continued because it is a convenient compilation, in approximate chronological order, of the one hundred most outstanding poets of the day from the late 7th century to the early 13th century.

The list of poets dazzles with the names of Murasaki Shikibu, the acclaimed writer of The Tale of Genji; her daughter Daini no Sanmi; her great-grandfather Fujiwara no Kanesuke; the wonderful poets Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Sei Shonagon... and more!

Ono no Komachi

Many famous Japanese artists have illustrated the Hyakunin Isshu which has increased its popular appeal, and of course the card game karuta has encouraged many people to discover the poems.

The Hyakunin Isshu is one of the central pillars of classical Japanese literature. The Tales of Ise, a series of love poems featuring fictionalised poet Ariwara no Narihira (more of him later!) were hugely inspirational for Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji. Ariwara no Narihira was an exceptional poet too, and arguably his entry in the Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 17, popularly known as 'Chihayaburu' (owing to its opening line), is perhaps the best-loved poem of all.


Chihayafuru and Popular Media

A poster advertises the first series of popular anime 'Chihayafuru'

Possibly the most well-known and beloved poem of the Hyakunin Isshu is Poem 17, by Ariwara no Narihira, popularly referred to as Chihayaburu, after the first line of the poem:


kamiyo mo kikazu


karakurenai ni

mizu kukuru to wa

Such beauty unheard of

even in the age of the raging gods -

the Tatsuta river

tie-dyeing its waters

in autumnal colours.

The poem lends its popular name to the manga Chihayafuru. It's a 'pillow word' which comes from the first five syllables of the poem, which means 'raging' or 'shaken in fury'. The manga Chihayafuru has been so successful it has been made into an excellent anime and three live-action movies.

The story centres on high school girl Chihaya (whose name resonates with Poem 17 too). She is driven to create a competitive after school karuta club, and the story details their relationships and the club's competitive highs and lows.

A high school karuta club competition in the movie Chihayafuru

The opening introductory poem, which isn't one of the hundred poems, is chanted...

The corresponding card to the second part of the poem is quickly swiped away!

The strongest female player in karuta is called the Queen, and it is Chihaya's aim to become the very best.

Any of the one hundred poem cards may be read in a karuta match, and if a card on the tatami is touched when the poem is not in play this constitutes a fault, and the opponent strategically hands over one of their cards.

Memorization is crucial to success in the game, and hours of practice are put into competitive karuta. Acute listening is necessary, too - the ability to sense the sound on the air before the first syllable is enunciated is a tremendous skill in karuta!

In the above photo you can see Chihaya wearing traditional hakama in the competition.


Hyakunin Isshu and the Famous Poem Chihayaburu by Ariwara no Narihira

An illustration of Poem 17, known as Chihayaburu, by Ariwara no Narihira

The Chihayafuru manga and subsequent movies - and indeed the central protagonist Chihaya - are named after what is possibly the most famous poem in the collection of One Hundred Poems. It is Poem 17, known as Chihayaburu from its opening pillow-word, and it's by Ariwara no Narihira.

Classical Japanese literature is founded upon important texts which include The Tale of Genji; One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each; and The Tales of Ise. Ariwara no Narihira is a real-life early Heian era poet who was fictionalised for the Tales of Ise, and it is the manuscript of The Tales of Ise that was the inspiration for Murasaki Shikibu's tale of Prince Genji and courtly love about half a century later.

In the Chihayafuru movie, karuta club member Kanade explains Poem 17 to Chihaya. She describes how it may be interpreted to have more meaning than the pretty surface description of the beautiful autumn leaves flowing in the ancient Nara river. There is a second meaning, which hinges on the interpretation of a single line at the end of the poem:

The last line can be read in two ways owing to the way that classical Japanese k and g were written using the same characters. In an earlier waka poetry collection known as the Kokinshuu, the line appears to be interpreted as mizu kuguru to wa, which means 'water flowing under crimson'. The imagery of the flowing water suggests a love that's passionate and intense: his feelings are flowing under the crimson brocade-like leaves, hidden and secret. It is possible that Ariwara no Narihira, who composed this poem, was secretly engaged in an affair with a palace lady who later became Empress.

Kanade describes Poem 17 as a metaphor for a secret, heart-breaking affair, in the movie Chihayafuru!


Quoting Kanade From Chihayafuru Anime Episode 4: A Whirlwind of Flower Petals Descends..

Kanade talks to Chihaya about Poem 17!

'Teiko took one poem from each poet in chronological order from Emperor Tenji

to Retired Emperor Juntoku to decorate the sliding doors at the Ogura mountain villa,

the summer home of the general and poet Utsunomiya Yoritsuna.

Many of the selected poems were ornamental in nature,

because they were meant to be used as decoration.

79 male poets, 21 female poets.'

'Classical poetry becomes interesting when you know the history behind the poems.

I believe this poem is about passionate love.

Did you know that Nijo no Kisaki was in love with Ariwara no Narihira before she married the Emperor? The poem was displayed on a folding screen in the palace.

Some accounts say that Nijo no Kisaki was the one who requested the poem.

It is this secret love affair, and the child that came from it who later became Emperor,

which is believed to have inspired Murasaki's protagonist the shining Genji,

and his affair with the Emperor's wife Fujitsubo,

and their son believed to have been fathered by the emperor,

who later became emperor too.

I like how Narihira concealed his love for her in a scenic rendering

since he wasn't able to forget about her.'

'Impassionate' is a decorative word for gods that implies great force.

The red river can be interpreted as an autumn scene

but I believe the red leaves represent a love never faded.

When you look at it that way the card with the black letters becomes deep red don't you think?'


Karuta and Tradition

Karuta Hajime New Year's Card Game

The Year's First Card Game at Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto

Karuta is a popular traditional game played at New Year.

Here is a lovely photo of women dressed in Heian era costume (juunihitoe) assembled at the Yasaka Shrine near Gion, Kyoto, to play karuta for New Year.


We hope that you've enjoyed our article about the connections between a contemporary competitive card game, the ancient collected poems of Japan, and Japanese movies and anime!

If you've enjoyed this blog, you might like this one too: Zusetsu's Favourite Japanese Anime.

Do take a look!

Thank you for reading,

Cathy and Yukki


Japanese Heian lady with a calligraphy brush

Sources and Further Reading

Peter Macmillan (trans.), One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each: A Treasury of Japanese Verse, (Penguin Classics, 2018).

The Arthur Tress Collection of Japanese Illustrated Books, University of Pennsylvania

Kitao Masayoshi, Tenarai Hyakunin Isshu (date unknown)

One Thousand Summers: a Japanologist writing about Japanese literature:

Image of Kanade and Chihaya: Chihayafuru Fandom: Ogura Hyakunin Isshu

Illustration from FutureLearn: Keio University, Japanese Culture Through Rare Books : Ogurayama Hyakunin Isshu, early Edo Period.

Wikipedia: Illustration of Ono no Komachi by Suzuki Harunobu.


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