There has always been a conflict in Japan between the desire of the authorities to ban gambling and a determination among people of all classes to gamble. Horse racing, boat and bicycle racing are popular forms of gambling, along with playing pachinko slot machines and mahjong.
Gambling with cards also takes place, although it does not seem to be so popular as it was in former times.
Although the ancient Japanese aristocracy used to entertain themselves with card games, they did not tend to play for money, and the games did not spread to the lower classes.
However, in 1549, when Francis Xavier landed in Japan, the Portuguese crew of the ship he sailed on introduced the 48 card Portuguese deck to the Japanese. This sparked a fashion for gambling with playing cards in Japan until 1633, when the authorities cut off all contact with the outside world, and banned foreign imports and influences, including European-style playing cards.
Various home-grown card decks were produced, grew popular and were then banned by the authorities in a continuing attempt to prevent gambling.
It was out of this period when the legitimacy of playing cards was contested by the state that the Hanafuda style deck was developed, consisting of twelve suits of four cards each. Instead of being based on a European-style number system, the twelve suits are each governed by a particular flower that is associated with a month of the year – hence the name, “Hanafuda” or “Flower Cards”.
In the Meiji Era (1862-1912) the government adopted a more permissive attitude towards gambling and gaming. Then, in 1889 the Nintendo corporation opened its doors and began to produce hand-made Hanafuda cards, and later on, mass produced cards, which they continue to produce to this day.
The most popular game played with Hanafuda cards is called Koi Koi. Players compete to match cards in their hand with cards on the table and get bonus points for making special combinations. However, as the game does not readily lend itself to gambling, a faster game was developed by the Yakuza, and their gaming parlours became popular resorts for urban gamblers.
However, towards the end of the Meiji era, government policy changed and gambling was once more made illegal.
The ban on gambling was even more strictly enforced during the Second World War but no sooner had the war finished than various forms of gambling began to flourish again, including games using the Hanafuda deck.
One example of such a game occurs in the first volume of the Gambling Legend Tetsuya comic series by Sai Fumei and Hoshino Yasushi (Shonen Magazine Comics, Kodansha, 1997). Tetsuya, the mahjong-playing hero of the series, begins his gambling career by playing a Hanafuda card game at night in an illicit gambling den in the chaotic aftermath of world war two Japan. In the game he plays, called “Uichokabu,” the cards are assigned number values according to their designated month of the year. Cards for November and December are omitted and the object of the game is to get closer to “9” than the dealer. The player places bets at a level of his choice and gets to call for another card or to stick, just as in Black Jack. The dealer plays four players at a time, each gambling on his own cards.
Tetsuya soon moves on to playing mahjong, and the rest of the series is about the vicissitudes of his fortunes at the mahjong table. It seems that the post war mahjong boom put Hanafuda gambling in the shade.
Today, with the emergence of video games and other forms of entertainment, traditional Hanafuda card games like Koi Koi are played less often than before, and mostly as a form of entertainment at home or with friends. Nevertheless, Nintendo continues to produce a range of Hanafuda decks alongside its range of video games products.
A typical Hanafuda deck consists of 48 cards which measure about 55 x 35 mm in size, considerably smaller than European playing cards. A typical Hanafuda card is made of paper pasted onto card. The back of the card and the frame on the front is either in black or red ochre. Nintendo’s highest quality set, the “Daitoryou” deck, comes in a smart plastic box with a picture of Napoleon on the top.
Many Hanafuda fans now play various video game versions of the game, including those produced by Nintendo. Moreover, the popularity of the Internet has now made information about Hanafuda more widely available, with Google recording over 150,000 pages related to Hanafuda at the time of writing this article.