Hanafuda - The Japanese Flower Card Game
Various Cards

Cherry Blossoms The Hanafuda is a deck of ancient Japanese playing cards that has undergone several modern incarnations. The name Hanafuda doesn't refer to any single specific game; literally translated, it means “flower cards.” Several different games have been created from the original Hanafuda deck, and while each game has its own distinctive name, they are often collectively referred to under the generic label of Hanafuda.

A traditional Hanafuda deck of cards has 48 cards divided into 12 suits – one for every month. The four cards from each month share a common Japanese nature-inspired theme, whether it's cherry blossoms in March or maple leaves in October. Modern deck makers have taken some liberties with the traditional illustrations, and these days contemporary Hanafuda decks use a wide variety of animation styles, and even incorporate non-traditional characters like Napoleon and Mario.

The very first playing cards appeared in central Asia in the 9th century. It didn't take long for trade to carry these cards the short distance to the islands of Japan. Though a traditional Hanafuda deck is distinctly Japanese in appearance, the overtly Japanese illustrations conceal an important Western influence. Hanafuda's most obvious predecessor is actually the Portuguese Hombre deck, which was the first 48-card deck to appear in Japan. Portuguese traders and missionaries arrived in Japan in the 16th century, and were quick to invite the locals to participate in their card games.

Prior to the arrival of the first European traders, the Japanese used playing cards almost exclusively for recreation, but the gambling card games preferred by the Portuguese visitors quickly gained popularity among the natives. The Japanese government saw the danger in this new hobby and quickly banned private gambling. Less than a century later, when Japan instituted its new isolationist policy, all foreign playing cards became illegal.

As a result, Japanese card fans abandoned the Westernized designs of the Hombre deck in favor of their own homemade decks depicting Japanese characters and scenes. What they retained was the original 48-card design of the Hombre deck, and a penchant for gambling. Over time, the images became more uniform so a standardized set of rules could be developed, but as the government banned one deck after another for being gambling-oriented, card players had to become more clever in their deck designs. In this way, the original Hanafuda deck was designed in the late 18th century. Its use of image association instead of an obvious point system made it more government-friendly.

Though the origins of the Hanafuda deck are ancient, the far-reaching influence of the flower cards can be seen in several modern pop culture references. In Japan, Hanafuda is the source of several of the country's oldest and most popular card games. It should come as no surprise then that these cards are largely responsible for funding one of today's most successful game companies. Hanafuda decks were the very first product offered by the now-famous video game maker Nintendo. At the end of the 19th century, the Nintendo corporation was founded for the sole purpose of producing hand-painted Hanafuda decks. This would be their primary source of income for nearly a hundred years.

Nintendo Entertainment System The Hanafuda deck quickly gained favor among Japanese card enthusiasts. They readily embraced the diverse deck which could easily be used for family recreation, and with a few subtle adjustments could also be used for gambling. It was the deck's ability to slip under the government radar that first attracted the attention of the illegal gamblers that eventually organized to become the infamous Yakuza crime group. The word “yakuza” itself is actually an alteration on the name of the worst hand in a popular old gambling card game called Oicho-Kabu, though its association with crime has altered its meaning to the point that many now use “yakuza” as a slang word for “gangster.” To this day, one of the few occasions in which yakuza members openly display their gang tattoos is when playing Oicho-Kabu, and for this reason many yakuza tattoos have been inspired by images from the flower cards

Japanime lovers around the world have embraced this colorful and cultural deck of cards. Hanafuda collectors' demand for brighter, bolder cards has inspired companies like Nintendo to create special themed decks like the Mario edition they offered to Club Nintendo members in 2007 and 2008. In 2006, Nintendo paid homage to their roots by including the popular Hanafuda game of Koi-Koi in a DS release called Clubhouse Games. Though Nintendo continues to mass-produce their famous Hanafuda decks, today they can only be imported from Japan.

Today, Hanafuda-based games remain popular in Japan and have extended to neighboring countries like South Korea and even further to the Polynesian islands that Japan once occupied. More significantly, the popularity of online card games has attracted a new crowd of Hanafuda fans from around the world. Free flash versions of Hanafuda games can readily be found at several popular gaming sites, and it's only a matter of time before the deck's gambling potential earns it its own virtual table at the online casinos.