Young people in colorful Heian Period (794-1185) costumes charm spectators at Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto every year on January 3 with their demonstration of the traditional Japanese card game known askaruta. The game uses cards based on the Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poems, One Poem Each), a famous anthology of ancient Japanese waka poetry. The Japanese people have cherished these poems for centuries, and traditional poems still resonate with men and women in Japan as they learn classic Japanese literature at school and play karuta at home and school. A set of “Hyakunin Isshu” cards can probably be found in many homes in Japan because playing the game has become a popular New Year’s activity.
Interest in karuta has seen a resurgence among Japanese young women lately as a result of the popular manga series “Chihayafuru,” which features Chihaya Ayase, a girl who develops a passion for karuta and seeks to become the queen of competitive karuta. As of March 2016, 31 volumes of the manga series had been published and a total of 16 million copies had been sold since its release in 2008.
Why has “Chihayafuru” been so successful? Girls probably feel empathy for Chihaya, who struggles to seek meaning in her life. The manga’s vivid description of competitive karuta, which is more like a sporting event than an elegant cultural hobby, perhaps grips readers. A live-action film based on the coming-of-age story was released in March and became a box-office hit. According to Yomiuri (4/1), the number of high school and college students who have recently joined karuta clubs has skyrocketed.
To play the card game based on 100 poems, all you need is a set of 200 karuta cards. Each of the 100 yomifuda (reading cards) contains one of the complete poems (five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables) along with an illustration of the corresponding poet. The other 100 cards, torifuda(grabbing card), contain only the last two lines of the poems with no illustration. The game can be played by multiple players trying to snatch as many randomly scattered torifuda as possible in response to a chanter’s recitation of each poem.
However, the game of competitive karuta is a different story. The set of 100 torifuda cards is split 50-50 between two players, and each player spreads them out on the floor face-up. When all of the cards are in place, a chanter begins to recite the poems. The explosion of activity comes with the first sound out of the chanter’s mouth. The contestants both dive for the corresponding card at the instant they recognize the chanted poem, and each tries to be the first to get a finger on it and flick it off to one side. The first player to touch the corresponding torifudawins that card. Although the game itself is simple, players need strong concentration skills, a good memory, and catlike agility.
“Chihayafuru” is the first syllable of the poem, ちはやぶる 神代も聞かず 龍田川 からくれなゐに 水くくるとは (Even when the gods / Held sway in the ancient days / I have never heard / That water gleamed with autumn red / As it does in Tatta’s stream), written by Ariwara no Narihira, one of Japan’s “six poetic geniuses,” in the ninth century. It also refers to Chihaya, the heroine of the manga and movie.