A couple of years ago I did a post about an online translation of the Hyakunin-isshu, A Hundred Verses from Old Japan, and Miriam (of Creosote.org, if it’s still a going concern [it seems to have given up the ghost in early 2006]) left a comment discussing tournaments based on a game called karuta (from Portuguese carta ‘card’) and adding, tantalizingly, that she had “found a fantastic website on the history of karuta a few months ago” but didn’t know where to find it. Now Dave Bull has added a comment suggesting that she might be referring to his own 1996 essay Karuta: Sports or Culture?; I don’t know if it’s what Miriam had in mind, but it’s so well written and interesting I had to give it its own LH post. Dave starts out in medias res, with “an elderly gentleman” chanting poetry and a group of formally dressed people suddenly exploding into action, then goes into the history of the poems, the cards, and the game. Here’s a snippet to whet your appetite, but you’re going to want to read the whole thing if you have the slightest interest in Japanese culture:

Cards were formerly made in many shapes and sizes, and not only from pasteboard. Elegant sets were fashioned in lacquered finishes, or drawn on slips of thin wood. Well-known painters down the years have turned out sets of cards, perhaps the most famous of which is the much-photographed set by Ogata Korin, backed with fine gold foil, and of which reproduction sets sell for as much as 1,100,000 yen. In the Edo era it was apparently common for sets of cards to be produced by relatively upper-class people, as they had both the time, and the elegant calligraphy skills that were required. One drawback to this, of course, was that cards produced in such a way were quite difficult to read. This was especially so when the tori fuda [the cards with the final couplets, which the players must try to grab when they recognize the poem] were written in complicated Chinese characters, as was inevitably the case back in those times. It was in the mid-Meiji era that a newspaper company had the idea of producing sets of cards written using the cursive hiragana syllabary, which could be read easily by anyone, even young children. To give an impetus to the sale of their new cards, they began to organize large-scale competitions, and it is here that we see the origin of today’s nationally organized groups and competitions. (This Meiji-era burst of popularity in karuta saw the birth of another Japanese institution — the Nintendo company, of video game fame, who started out as producers of karuta and hanafuda, which they still make. Home entertainment has come a long way in a hundred years …)

(According to the Wikipedia entry, Nintendo [Japanese 任天堂, ニンテンドー Nintendō] “roughly translates as ‘leave luck to heaven’, ‘heaven blesses hard work’, ‘in heaven’s hands’, or ‘work hard, but in the end it’s in heaven’s hands.'”)


  1. I remember the first time my high school Japanese teacher told us about Karuta. We all looked at eachother in utter amazement and confusion. “A game . . . that’s fun . . . based on . . . literature? How do they remember all that . . . stuff?” I’ve seen quite a few decks since then, and some of them are real works of art.

  2. Robert Staubs says

    The iroha karuta are quite fun when you’re first learning hiragana (and honestly quite a while longer), but distinguishing the wo cards from the homophonous o ones is tricky and not a little confusing in the beginning.
    I sometimes see an interesting reinterpretation of nintendou—[nin][ten][dou] ‘”leave it to heaven” building’ instead of [nin][tendou] ‘leave it to heaven’ (both ten and tendou are ‘heaven’ though the latter could be ‘heavenly paradise’). Those who reinterpret it this way seem to want to make it mean ‘a “gaming” institution’—I’m not sure why.

  3. then there’s the musical e-card site japanpoem.com, which also uses that same 100-poem set.
    unfortunately, a lot of people’s spam filters these days won’t let them through!

  4. I’ve seen some high-level competitions on TV, and they are really impressive. I wouldn’t want to be facing down some of those kids in a quick-draw competition.

  5. P. Spaelti says

    I am just baffled by attempts to translate something like Nintendo. In Japanese ○○堂, i.e. “something-something-dou”, is a very common traditional naming schema for Japanese businesses. For instances many important publishers have names of this type. This naming schema is completly parallel to that used by temples, where the third character is usually 寺 “ji” (though occasionally 堂 is used there as well.) What the exact conventions for the first two characters are, I couldn’t say. My own impression is that most Japanese just take the two characters at face value, without thinking about what they mean, much as English speakers would never seriously think that, say, “Hollywood” had anything to do with a wooded area or holly. Sometimes the two characters seem to come from Buddhist sayings or traditional poems.
    Anyhow considering that the two characters of Nintendo come out to “responsibility of heaven” you could just as sensibly translate Nintendo as “Random House”. Sounds like a normal name for a publisher to me.

  6. Baffled? Really? Even if most people take words at face value, obviously those of us interested in language don’t, and it seems perfectly normal to me that we should want to know what the characters in Nintendo mean. I guess I’m more baffled by “normal” people’s lack of curiosity.

  7. How many Mitsubishi owners in the US actually know that they drive d1amonds – three of them? 😉

  8. According to the Wikipedia entry, Nintendo [Japanese 任天堂, ニンテンドー Nintendō] “roughly translates as ‘leave luck to heaven’, ‘heaven blesses hard work’, ‘in heaven’s hands’, or ‘work hard, but in the end it’s in heaven’s hands.’”

    The entry now says:

    The name “Nintendo” is commonly assumed to mean “leave luck to heaven”,[10][8] but the assumption lacks historical validation; it can alternatively be translated as “the temple of free hanafuda”.[11]

    Footnote 11 points to Brian Ashcraft, “‘Nintendo’ Probably Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does”; that discussion is well worth reading if you’re curious.

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