Ever since I first saw the anime series Chihayafuru, I’ve been fascinated with the world of competitive karuta. If you’re not already familiar with the game, competitive karuta (競技かるた Kyōgi karuta) is a lightning-fast game of skill which demands a lot from those who choose to pursue it as a hobby. In order to play the most well-known and widely played variety of karuta (known as Hyakunin Isshu) first, prospective players must memorize all 100 of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu anthology of classical Japanese poems. Think that sounds difficult enough just to start? Well, it gets a whole lot more complicated from there!
There are two different decks used in competitive karuta. The first deck is made up of 100 cards called the Yomifuda (reading cards) which contain an entire poem from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. The other 100 cards are the torifuda (grabbing cards) which contain only the final two lines of one of the poems. The point of the game is to choose 25 cards from the 50 cards each player gets at random at the beginning of the match, arrange them in three rows in front of you, and be able to grab each card one by one as each poem is read faster than your opponent.
Think about everything that goes into each match for a second: At the start of each match, both players are given a 15 minute memorization period in which they must memorize the position of each card in front of them and their opponent which means half the cards are upside down. Keep in mind as well that the layout of the cards can change throughout a match and once the match is over, the board layout must be completely forgotten to make room for a new board layout in the next match (this is particularly true for tournaments). Just how seriously do these players take the game? Watch how fast the players move in a real-life queen match from 2017 to determine the best female player in Japan.
This is a game that requires a razor-sharp memory, lightning-fast reflexes, mental and physical stamina to spare and serious determination to make it all the way to the top!
History of Competitive Karuta
Interestingly though, this is a game that has only been around since the early 19th century, a little before the Meiji restoration began. In the early 20th century, the rules (which vary from region to region) were unified under a blanket set of rules instituted by the Tokyo Karuta Association and the first competitive karuta tournament took place in 1904 though these days the rules and regulations are governed by The All-Japan Karuta Association established in 1957. Tournaments to determine the best players in the country have been held annually since the mid to late 1950’s for both men and women.
In the current era of competitive karuta, the championships are held annually in January at Omi Jingu in Otsu, Shiga. The title for the male champions is meijin while women are called queens though both are considered Grand Champions.
As mentioned above, there are plenty of different varieties of karuta that are played by different age groups and in different regions of Japan. Along with the Hyakunin Isshu, there is also a simpler version aimed at children called Iroha-Garuta. In this version, there are only 96 cards total and the point of the game is to match proverbs rather than poems. Then there’s Obake Karuta which features the artwork of famous monsters from Japanese folklore. The point of this variety is to listen to the clues being read out and to match the clues to the correct hiragana syllable on the grabbing card. If that’s not enough for you, there are also regional editions of this game which can have wildly different rules depending on where you are.
Up until very recently, Japan was the only place in the world where you could play this game competitively. That all changed however when in 2012, an international tournament was held which hosted players from the U.S., China, South Korea, New Zealand, and Thailand. Another organization is attempting to arrange another international tournament in Japan in 2020 (the same year that Tokyo is hosting the Summer Olympics) so if you want to join the fun before it becomes an international sensation, start working hard now!
As you have learned, karuta is a fascinating and difficult game but is also equally beautiful and mesmerizing. Ready to go memorize the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu and become the next meijin or queen yet?