What is Unsun Karuta? The card game imported by Portuguese explorers
Designs of Unsun Karuta
Rules of Unsun Karuta
Let’s play Unsun Karuta

The popular Japanese card game “Karuta“ is a well-known form of entertainment in Japan, played especially widely during the New Year holidays. Karuta has recently gathered interest from people overseas too, partially due to the influence of animation.

Among the various types of Karuta, the most popular are “Iroha Karuta“ (cards with proverbs and pictures) or “Hyakunin Isshu“ (cards with traditional Japanese poems and pictures of poets). The Karuta game that I introduce in this article is neither of those, but “Unsun Karuta”, a card game with features unlike any others of its kind. Let us take a look at the origins, draws, and characteristics of this mysterious “Unsun Karuta”.

What is Unsun Karuta? The card game imported by Portuguese explorers

Iroha Karuta’s cards all carry proverbs, whose starting sounds follow the order of the Japanese old syllabary alphabet. On the cards are drawn various scenes, such as Japanese people wearing traditional kimono or yukata (informal kimono), landscapes, and customs. Someone who has attended a Karuta competition might also imagine pictures of Heian era aristocrats, or traditional Japanese poems drawn on the cards of Hyakunin Isshu (hundred poems).

Iroha Karuta is the most popular karuta

The picture patterns of Unsun Karuta, which I am introducing this time, are very unique. They are not like Japanese patterns and more similar to Western or Chinese designs. At first glance, it would be hard to tell if they are Japanese products. Even each card's name, “Robai“ and “Kotsu“ for example, sounds very different from a Japanese pronunciation.

Unique designs such as a Western sword and dragon

Unsun Karuta was invented in the Edo Period

The roots of Unsun Karuta date back to the Age of Discovery in the 16th Century. At that time, while in port in Japan, sailors from Portugal were playing a card game which the Japanese referred to as “Nanban Karuta”. The word “Karuta” in Japanese is derived from the Portuguese “Carta”, and is translated today as “playing cards” or “letters”.

The Japanese people who learned Nanban Karuta imitated and changed the game, which resulted in the creation of “Tensho Karuta“. During the middle of the Edo period pictures were added to the cards, and the game spread nationwide with the new name of Unsun Karuta.

Playing cards that Portuguese sailors used in port

Why was “Unsun Karuta” preserved only in the Hitoyoshi area?

At one time Unsun Karuta was popular nationwide, but at the end of the 18th century the Shogunate restricted all kinds of recreation and Unsun Karuta also declined. Only in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Prefecture, Unsun Karuta circumvented the radar of nationwide restrictions and survived to this day.

Unsun Karuta was preserved in Hitoyoshi with unique designs

What was the reason that Unsun Karuta was only preserved in the Hitoyoshi area? Unfortunately, a clear answer is not known, but it is thought to be related to the Hitoyoshi area’s terrain and culture.

Hitoyoshi is a basin surrounded by steep mountains such as those of the Kyushu Mountain range. This made accessing the area from outside quite the ordeal, requiring travelers to climb over the mountainous terrain. The basin also houses the wide Kuma River and its tributaries, which on winter mornings, can create a dense fog that may linger until noon. Due to these features, the Hitoyoshi area had little contact with the outside and it could be said that Hitoyoshi was an untouched “sanctuary” of sorts.

On the other hand, the Hitoyoshi area in the Edo period was an independent domain named the “Higo-Hitoyoshi Han” (han = domain). The central city of Hitoyoshi was originally a prosperous castle town with various classes such as samurai, farmers, craftsmen and merchants. Perhaps, there could have also been bustling entertainment districts where Unsun Karuta was a popular pastime.

The rules of the Shogunate could not reach Hitoyoshi, and the region inside the basin was a flourishing community. The author Ryotaro Shiba called Hitoyoshi “The richest hidden region in Japan.” The survival of Unsun Karuta in Hitoyoshi is understandable, when considered alongside these characteristics of the area.

The landscape of Hitoyoshi “The richest hidden region in Japan.” 

Until the beginning of the Showa period, Unsun Karuta was played widely in the Hitoyoshi Kuma region. Especially the area called Kajiya-machi (blacksmith town) was the most popular place for playing. This part of town attracted many blacksmiths and it is said that after their work, craftsmen enjoyed Unsun Karuta almost daily.

After World WarⅡ, the number of people who played Unsun Karuta gradually declined. During the Heisei period, only 14 or 15 people understood the game and Unsun Karuta faced extinction. However, local people who loved the game and conservation groups worked to preserve Unsun Karuta, and now it is becoming popular again.

In Kajiya-machi (blacksmith town) Unsun Karuta was the most popular

Unique Unsun Karuta suits

There are 75 cards in Unsun Karuta, which is more than in standard playing cards or Hanafuda (Japanese playing cards). Here, I will to explain the game by comparing it with modern cards that are easier to picture.

There are 75 cards in Unsun Karuta

First, standard playing cards have four suits; Spades, Hearts, Clubs, and Diamonds. Unsun Karuta has five suits called Pao (stick), Isu (sword), Kotsu (Holy Grail), Oul (gold), and Gul (comma-shaped heraldic design). One big difference between the two games is that modern cards have four suits and Unsun Karuta has five. 

From left: Pao, Isu, Kotsu, Oul, Gul
Modern playing cards are ordered as A, 2-10, J, Q, K, and these are equivalent to Unsun Karuta’s numbered cards from 1-9, and picture cards of Sun (Chinese man) Un (Seven Lucky Gods), Souta (Queen), Robai (Dragon), Rei (Servant) and Kaba (Knight). There are 13 kinds of cards in a modern playing card deck but Unsun Karuta has 15. To express the numbers 1-9, the cards display multiple of their corresponding suit (e.g. 9 of “Isu” will show 9 images of a sword).

From top left: Sun, Un, Souta. From bottom left: Robai, Rei, Kaba
I thought the Kotsu (Holy Grail) cards are interesting. I am guessing that the Holy Grail was the most difficult illustration to imagine for Japanese people when they saw Portuguese carta. The image on Unsun Karuta’s “Kotsu” cards look more like a fruit than any kind of cup or goblet.

From left: Kostu Souta, Kotsu 1, Kotsu 9

Local support for Unsun Karuta

In Kajiya-machi, the group supporting Kajiya-machi townscape preservation and revitalization is trying to improve the local economy, and at the same time popularize Unsun Karuta.  There are several similar groups nationwide, but Kajiya-machi’s group is especially enthusiastic, and has received several awards and certificates such as the Kumamoto Prefectural Cultural Award in 2005.

If you walk around in Kajiya-machi, you would find many items with motifs from Unsun Karuta and specialty goods of the Hitoyoshi area. For example, there is stained glass with Unsun Karuta images (window at “CHOBIT, the World’s Smallest Art Museum”) and tiles with images of Unsun Karuta (on the street in front of the Unsun Karuta House) and more. Please visit the town and see them for yourself.   

Robai (dragon) image stained glass set in a building

Street tiles with images of Oul, Un, and Kotsu 3

Rules of Unsun Karuta

To remember the rules of Unsun Karuta, it is best to play the game while learning how it works. Here, I will simply introduce the basic rules. 

First, Unsun Karuta is a team battle between two groups of 4. While you are playing the game, enemies and allies alternate and sit in a circle.  The game starts when one of the participants shuffles the cards and deals them face down in front of each player (9 cards per person).

In the same as modern playing cards, Unsun Karuta cards have strength differences depending on the card’s pictures or numbers. While playing the game, each player gives a card one by one. The person who has the strongest card in a round wins all of the other cards. This is repeated until one of the players has lost all their cards, and ultimately, the team which has more cards wins.

Since the strongest and weakest suits are decided by the game’s flow, the rules are difficult to explain in detail this article. I recommend for you to join a game and learn how Unsun Karuta is played firsthand!

Card strength changes depending on the design

Let’s play Unsun Karuta

Unsun Karuta has been preserved only in the Hitoyoshi area. The best and fastest way to experience the game is to visit Hitoyoshi.

Play at Unsun Karuta House 

In Kajiya-machi, where Unsun Karuta was very popular until the mid-Showa era, there is an exhibition hall called the Unsun Karuta House. Documents about Unsun Karuta are stored and exhibited here, and you can play Unsun Karuta if you make an advance reservation. 

Unsun Karuta specialty hall, Unsun Karuta House
Enter the building and you will climb up a long narrow staircase. This mysterious atmosphere feels perfect for Unsun Karuta, that survived through its Edo era prohibition.

Climb up the stairs while viewing a large Robai poster card

When you get to the third floor, there are exhibits and a round table to play the game. The exhibits here are rare and can not be found anywhere else, including Nanban Karuta pictures that were the original models for Unsun Karuta, and records of the people who tried popularize the game.

Exhibit about Unsun Karuta documents

In fact, there is an Unsun Karuta World Tournament. Held every October, the 2019 tournament was the 16th. You might wonder why there is a World Tournament, even though this game has only been preserved in the Hitoyoshi area. But there is a reason.
The originator of the world competition was Mr. Shigeru Tateyama, who belongs to the group supporting Kajiya-machi townscape preservation and revitalization. At the time of 2004 when the first competition was held, Mr. Tateyama was feeling the difficulty of repopularizing Unsun Karuta, and how it may no longer be possible. To let Unsun Karuta “go out with a bang”, so to speak, Mr. Tateyama planned the tournament. He also asked the Embassy of Portugal for permission to use Portugal’s national flag and national anthem. Then, unexpectedly, the Portuguese Ambassador visited the tournament. The tournament became featured in newspapers and other mass media, attracting wide attention.

Beyond expectations, the competition had a large attendance and continued to the second and third years. Participating teams are also increasing year by year from all over Japan. Mr. Tateyama told me that in the future, he would like to increase the numbers of  participants from overseas. 

The world competition held every October

Face-off with Unsun Karuta!

At first, I planned to play myself and report about it, but this proved impossible. Unsun Karuta requires 8 people since it is a team battle of 4 against 4. There are special rules that can make it 3 on 3 but I only had one travel companion, and even if Mr. Tateyama participated, we only had 3 players. Unfortunately, I cannot speak in this article from real play experience.

That being said, I could not leave empty-handed. The following photos show the atmosphere of what an actual game would be like, so please see them as a sort of digest experience of Unsun Karuta.

Deal the cards on a round table with a white table cloth

After you check your cards, the battle starts!

The person who played the strongest card gets all the cards

Finally, I asked Mr. Tateyama about the secret of how to popularize Unsun Karuta. He said, “Don’t care too much about winning or losing, instead just enjoy playing”. Actually, this secret is posted inside of the Unsun Karuta House too. If you play Unsun Karuta and feel frustrated or angry, that defeats the purpose of the game. Regardless of the game’s results, every player feeling that Unsun Karuta is fun, and that they want to play again with the group, is the path to Unsun Karuta’s future popularization.

Attitude for preserving Unsun Karuta for the future. (The sign reads: “masters of Unsun Karuta are not those who win. They are those who make you want to play with them again.”)

Let’s go and experience Unsun Karuta!

To this day, Unsun Karuta is only preserved in the Hitoyoshi area of Japan. The true enjoyment of the game can really only be felt when you touch the cards for real, and play with great company. I recommend to go to Hitoyoshi and experience Unsun Karuta. I heard there are irregularly scheduled local events, so if there are not enough people to play in your party,  check and ask the Unsun Karuta House.