Discover the fast-paced, high-stakes world of kyougi karuta, Japan’s competitive card game of literary wits.
What comes to mind when you hear the words “Japanese poetry”? Do you picture a beautiful, courtly woman wetting her sleeves with tears over a secret lover? Or a tiny frog perched at the edge of a quiet old pond? How about two high-schoolers perched, cat-like, on a tatami floor, facing off as they get ready to smack cards out of their opponent’s reach? If the last scene gave you a double-take, you’re in for a treat. Welcome to the wild world of kyougi karuta (競技かるた), a competitive card game that pits two players against each other in an event that requires speed, concentration and a great memory.
The word karuta was actually inspired by the Portuguese word carta, when the Portuguese brought their own card games to Japan in the 1500s. The spirit of the game, however, dates back to the Heian period game ofkai-awase, or “shell-matching.” It was a courtly memorization game with matching sets of ornately painted clam or oyster shells, often painted with flora or fauna with literary allusions. The actual poems from the modern game are all waka verses in lines of 5-7-5-7- 7 syllables, and they come from a collection of love poems spanning from the seventh to the thirteenth century, called the Hyakunin Isshuu, or One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets.
The modern form of competitive karuta involves a face off between two players who compete for the best poetic memory, with the help of a third announcer, who recites the verses in a melodic voice. But while the announcer can read any of the 100 poems, only 50 are actually in play. Before the game, each competitor randomly chooses 25 torifuda, or “grabbing cards,” each card printed with the bottom 14 syllables of the corresponding poem (the other 50 cards are discarded). Each player lays out their cards in rows of three on the floor of a tatami room. Sitting seiza, they have 15 minutes to memorize the layout of the cards, before crouching at the ready while the announcer recites the poems. As soon as a player recognizes a verse, they sweep the card out of play. If they chose wisely, the player gets to put one of their own cards in their opponent’s section. The first player to clear their section wins the match. The game requires such a high level of speed, focus, strategy and memory that it is often referred to as a “martial art form on the tatami mat.” There’s a national competition each year, and even a budding international competition.
Around 1 million Japanese play the game, and there’s a boom right now, thanks in large part to a popular manga series, Chihayafuru, which follows Chihaya Ayase as she pursues her dream to become the “Queen,” Japan’s best female high school karuta player. The manga sold over 10 million copies and was adapted into an anime series in 2011, as well as a two-part, live-action movie in 2016.
Care to get your karuta on?
Whether you just want to observe or to flex your Japanese language skills and get into the mix, here are some handy tips to get you in the know.
DO watch and learn
Check out Chihayafuru if you want to get an entertaining introduction to this athletic cultural form.
DO NOT slack off if you want to win
All the major competitions occur around New Year’s, so start practicing now so you can lift that trophy high.
DO try it out for yourself
If you can read hiragana, give the game a try! You can buy an affordable karuta set from several online retailers.
Illustration by Chieko Watanabe