Sunday, 16 December 2012

Akahachi- Nintendo

"Akahachi" ( 八) , 48c. + Blank & "oni-fuda"

This deck, and the following few decks that I shall present, are the so-called 'mekuri' patterns. found in Japan, the patterns are local adaptations of the portugese playing cards introduced by traders, &c. However, In time, the designs grew to be more abstract, a process perhaps much aided by the fact that they were banned ( to disguise the cards) ,along with isolation form foregin traders.

In 1973, Sylvia Mann, in her book "the dragons of portugal" , stated that there were ten different kinds of mekuri patterns being produced in Japan. However, 39 years later, I could only find two., and all in one shop in Tokyo ( Okuno karuta )

The cards introduced by the traders were Latin-suited, that is, having suits of cups, coins, batons and swords, much like ( but not identical to)  ones used in Italy and spain to this day. As you can see, the Japanese more or less kept the shape of the suits, but the court cards have been greatly abstracted, only vaguely resembling human forms .On some ( presumedly important) cards, you can see silver overprints, perhaps to make them more visible in dimly lit rooms.
 Compare: Kurofuda -

Key to position of cards:

top row- 7, 8,  9,  (Knave),  ( Cavalier), (King)
Bottom row---Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

The suit of Batons, or "hau"
A you can see, the court cards only vaguely resemble human forms, being mostly comprised of  mass of red and black lines. Nevertheless, on some of the court cards, behind all that paint, a face can still be made out.
Also note the heavy silver overprints on the 1-6 of batons ( bottom row), and the court cards ( Top row, 3rd to 6th cards from left). The 6 of batons ( bottom row, 6th from left) , has the word 壽 ( lonevity) on it.

The suit of swords or "Isu"
The suit of isu or swords is distinguished from the suit of hau only by it's colour, the former being red, and the latter Black. Note the chinese numbers on the values of 4 to 9, and the Buddha on the 2 . The 8 ( top row, 2nd from right).

Cups, or Koppu
The pips of this suit do indeed resemble cups, or rather flat lidded vessels. The Cavalier ( top row, 4th from left), preserves the vague form of a man astride a horse - note the four legs which support the abstract figure.

Coins, or ôru
Again, the form of the suit somwhat resembles the conis of the priginal cards.
The Ace ( bottom row, 1st from left), takes the vague form of a serpent or dragon, an animal which was found on the aces of the portugese cards ( see
Also shown is the oni-fuda, a card which bears the visage of a goblin.


  1. Would you happen to know how one could acquire a set of Nintendo's Akahachi cards?

  2. You can get them at Okuno Karuta in Tokyo. As far as I know, they are the only place where you can get them.

  3. Dear Anthony,

    Hello, this is Mew, a student studying Japanese art history. I have been collecting bibliographies on Tensho karuta and its later regional varieties like akahachi. I have read most of the literature in Japanese, and now I hope to find some in English and find inspirations for a summer research project on the designs of these nearly-forgotten karuta cards.

    I came across your blog through an article in this link .

    I was wondering if you could provide any sort of literature on Karuta in English?
    It would be great if you could contact me via this email mewj @

    Thank you very much!
    Best wishes,
    Mew Lingjun Jiang

  4. Dear Mew:

    To my knowledge, there are only two book on the subject. The first, and most detailed is Sylvia Mann and virginia Wayland's "The Dragons of Portugal" As you can see, the book was published in the 1970s, and is way out of print. the second book is Sylvia Mann's "Alle Karten auf den Tisch / All cards on the Table." this book is basically an encyclopedia of the playing-cards of the world, and contains many illustrations. The Japanese patterns are amongst them. This book is also out of print, but someone is offering a copy here:

    As you can see, there is very little written in English on the cards. I am fascinated by your research. Have you, by any chance came across a description of how the game was played? This is an area of complete ignorance for the English-- some claim the rules of the game have been lost. Is this correct?

    I am yours &c.

    1. Hello Anthony!

      I sincerely apologize for my late reply, and thank you so much for your response. I have encountered so many interesting blog posts and commented a lot on blogspot, but I never get notification from it (though it's definitely because I forgot to check the "notify me" box, hehe).

      I returned to your blog via my email conversation with Mr. Simon Wintle and then found that you have already replied me such a long time ago. Sorry I missed your comment, and today I was about to email Mr. Wintle whether he knows your email address. I do prefer communicating by email since it's easier to keep track, if you don't mind.

      Yes, the two books in your comment are also mentioned in Japanese scholar EBASHI Takashi's 2015 book "Karuta," which gave a wonderful depiction of the history of karuta in Japan, including both systems of gambling karuta (such as mekurifuda) and Japanese karuta (such as hanafuda), with some rules, historical developments, regulations, and their appearances in Edo-period literatures. I will make sure to check out the two books.

      Meanwhile, I finally found a relatively recent book in English that mentions a little bit about other karuta playing cards. It's a book by Rebecca Salter, titled
      Japanese Popular Prints: From Votive Slips to Playing Cards." Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006. I have not started reading it, but I hope it's helpful.
      I'm still reading Ebashi's book and taking notes on them. I'm more interested in the now almost-forgotten regional playing cards like akahachi.

      I think I have encountered one or two books and a few sites in Japanese on some rules of regional playing cards. But yes, as you said, scholars also have mentioned that most of the rules have been lost in history or were not ever clearly stated in historical documents. Since I was more interested in looking for information on playing card designs, I didn't really look into rules (in which case I actually should if I intend to pursue further..).

      This is my side project, quite different from what I have been studying in Japanese art, so everything is just starting. I still have a lot to learn, and I'm very grateful that people all over the world have been very helpful in getting me in contact and providing me with materials.

      Ebashi's book "Karuta" (江橋崇『かるた』法政大学出版局,2015) includes some rules of the early mekurifuda.
      Maybe MASUKAWA Kouichi's book "nihon yuugishi" (増川宏一. 『日本遊戯史:古代から現代までの遊びと社会』. 平凡社, 2012) also has some, but this book has a larger scope, covering the history of games in Japan.
      Another one I have in mind is ITOU Takuma's guide book to Japanese gambling games (伊藤拓馬『賭けずに楽しむ日本の賭博ゲーム』. 立東社, 2015), a short but nice book with comprehensive introductions, rules, and illustrations.

      Ebashi and Ito have their websites on karuta. Maybe you have seen their sites.
      Ebashi's is "Japan Playing Card Museum":,
      and Ito's is "World Games Museum":

      I hope the information is helpful!

      And my last question: do you happen to know a person named Andy Pollett? Andy runs the site "Andy's Playing Cards", and I was also trying to reach out to him to ask about books on karuta in English. A person responded my question and said he has lost contact with Andy for over a decade. If you happen to know him, will you mind sharing his contact with me? Thanks a lot!

      And sorry again for the late and long comment!

      If you don't mind, I do prefer communicating via email. Though this time, I also have made sure that I checked the "notify me" box, so next time I won't miss your response.

      Thanks you very much
      Mew Lingjun Jiang
      mewj at uchicago . edu

  5. Dear Mew:
    The two sites you provided are most informative. As for Mr. Polett, I am unfortunately not in contact with him.

    I am yours, &c.