How to Play Hanafuda-Traditional Japanese Playing Cards

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An overhead image of hanafuda cards, which are a type of tradiitonal Japanese playing cards. They are very colorful.

Hanafuda, also known as “flower cards”, are a form of Japanese traditional playing cards.  While there are many traditional games and toys that existed long before video games, hanafuda has a rich history dating all the way back to the elegant and storied Heian Era. Read on to learn more about hanafuda’s origins, its growing popularity and how to play the classic hanafuda game, “koi koi”.

Mono-awase: The Predecessor to Hanafuda

The history of hanafuda begins in the Heian Era (794-1185).  Back then, the aristocratic elite didn’t compete with playing cards, but rather various collected objects.  The most common items included fans, painting and especially shells.  

Objectively, the goal of this game was to judge the quality and uniqueness of each object.  They called this game mono-awase (ものあわせ literally “object comparison”) .  In order to play this game, the participants divided themselves into teams of two: “Left” and “Right”. 

An illustration of the Heian Era, an elegant, pastorial time where they played hanafuda cards, a form of tradtional Japanese playing cards.
The Heian Era is where the origins of hanafuda began. Image via Shutterstock

The left team usually consisted of higher-ranking members, and they dressed in warm colors such as purple and orange. The right team dressed in colors such as blue and yellow.  Both team’s attire was very extravagant, and the left team always started first.

To put it simply, mono-awase was a battle of wits. Each member of the team would present an object, and had to speak of its beauty in a creative way.  Some would do this in the form of a traditional waka poem, while others would sing.

A predetermined judge would give points to each team, depending on the quality of each member’s presentation.  At the end of the game, the team with the most points won.  This battle of wits and words would carry over into hanafuda, which wouldn’t make its debut until over four centuries later.

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“Flower Cards”: The Rise of a New Pastime

In mono-awase, participants compare a variety of objects.  However, kai-awase (貝合わせ, literally “shell-comparison”) maintained its presence throughout the centuries. At first, game participants used organic shells.  Over time, the shells became more ornate.

Gilded shell sets in particular were popular bridal gifts during the Muromachi period (1336-1573).  Artisans often painted them in gold, and they were heavily circulated amongst the elite. Nevertheless, it was the common folk of the Edo period, along with influence of Portuguese trading cards, that would give rise to hanafuda (花札, literally “flower cards”).

Hanafuda cards are the combination of kai-awase and hana-awase (flower comparison), except standardized in a 48 playing card set. People know it for its eye-catching art, perfectly organized by 12 suits, one for each month of the calendar year. These suits are depicted on the cards’ faces, and include poetry ribbons, ornate illustrations of flowers, birds, etc.

A banner image of hanafuda-style art.
Hanafuda art is known for being colorful, lively and classical. Image via Shutterstock

Despite its growing popularity, officials banned hanafuda during the Kansei Reforms (1781-1793).  This was because the cards were used for gambling.  Yet, it wasn’t just hanafuda cards that were prohibited. Playing cards of any origin (i.e. the now standard 52-card deck) was also banned.

However, the officials lifted the ban around 1885, during the Meiji Restoration. While it took a little more time for hanafuda to shake the reputation of gambling, it’s now a game that everyone can enjoy and learn to play.

Koi Koi: The Hanafuda Matching Game

Koi koi (こいこい, literally “come on, come on!”) is the most popular game played with hanafuda cards. To put it simply, two players have to match cards based on their assigned category in a specific order. 

Successful matches win points at the end of 6-12 rounds. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Basic Rules

  1. The dealer or oya (親, lit. parent) is decided via rock-paper-scissors or dice roll. However, there is a more traditional way to do this.
    1. Everyone draws a single card. Whichever player draws a card from the earliest month is the oya.
    2. If both players draw from the same month, then the player with the higher value card is the oya, while the other one is the ko (子, literally “child”). 
  2. The oya then deals eight (8) cards, face-up to the ko.
  3. They then deal the same number of cards to themselves, but face-down.
  4. Then the players add eight more cards to the “field” in two rows of four, face-up.
  5. Set the rest of the cards aside in a draw pile.
A photo of four hanafuda playing cards. First picture is a hill. Second picture is a different patterned hill. Third picture is a hill under red leaf tree. Fourth and ifnal pciture is of a hill, under a red sky and a white sun.
A suit of hanafuda. Note how the hill remains a constant in this series. Image via Shutterstock
  1. Both players check all the cards in the field for “instant” wins.
    1. If all the cards match each other, (aka “a full month”), then the players cancel the round, and deals the cards once more.
    2. If ¾ of a month has been dealt, then three of the cards are set aside in one stack, and both players reveal a card. Whichever one plays the final card wins that month.
  1. The game then begins. In turns, each player matches a card in their hand with one in the field from the same month.
  2. They can also add a card that matches none of the cards
  3. If there are any matches, the player wins that match.
  4. However, if they want to double-down, they can say koi koi, and receive another card in hopes of getting multiple matches.
A suit of four hanafuda cards. The first three cards show autumn leaves of red, yellow and or puple. the final picture shows a deer. These are traditional Japanese playing cards.
Another suit of hanafuda cards. This time, the leaves remain constant, while a deer appears at the end. Image via Shutterstock

There are many variations to these rules, but this is how Japanese people use hanafuda cards to play koi koi at its most traditional level.

Conclusion

Playing hanafuda cards offer one of the most traditional Japanese recreational experiences. In current times, most people in the world connect Japan to video games.  Yet it is this game, borne from an ancient battle of wits and object comparisons, that perfectly encapsulates the elegant simplicity of traditional leisure in Japan.

Do you own a set of hanafuda cards? Have you ever played koi koi before? Let us know in the comments below!

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