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Poetry and Karuta: Gotta Catch ‘em All!


For those who have never read Japanese poetry but are looking to dive right into some classic material, the most introductory and comprehensive anthology is the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. Compiled by Fujiwara no Teika in the thirteenth century, the anthology consists of 100 tanka* from 100 different poets, one tanka per poet. Some of the best poets from between the seventh and thirteenth centuries, a lot of them of aristocratic lineage, are represented in this collection.

The collection focuses on many different things such as nature, life, and love. To place the strong with the weak, to capture and emphasize a sense of diversity–this uneven design of Teika’s manuscript makes the anthology so unique. Understanding the essence of the traditional Japanese poetry, which uses archaic language, is not easy; however, the anthology has been appreciated by Japanese for centuries, thanks to Ogura Hyakunin Isshu karuta, card game based on the anthology.

Karuta is a unique deck of cards inspired by ancient Portuguese sailors who spent their leisure time playing “carta”, a prototype of modern playing card. In a regular deck, there are two types of cards— the yomifuda cards meant to be read, and the torifuda cards meant to be snatched up as fast as possible. In the Hyakunin Isshu deck, the yomifuda cards showcase the complete poem, while the torifuda cards only show the last two lines. The players race each other to determine which torifuda card corresponds to the yomifuda card being read. The player who collects the most cards wins.

Don’t let the simplicity of the rules fool you. Playing a game of karuta requires cat-like reflexes, strong hand-eye coordination, and the ability to memorize all 100 poems line by line. The Hyakunin Isshu deck is normally employed in competitions nationwide (called Kyogi Karuta**) and proves to be a useful tool for teaching Japanese poetics. In fact, more and more Kyogi Karuta clubs are popping up in schools across the nation thanks to popular manga series Chihayafuru, which depicts the main characters growing as people through kyogi karuta and the world of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. Whether you are interested in Japanese poetry or crazy about manga, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu is what you should try out in the new year.

*Tanka (or waka) uses a Japanese poetic form requiring a five-line, 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count, unlike haiku, which is recognized for its famous three-line 5/7/5 syllable-count form.
**Kyogi Karuta employs the different rule from the traditional way that people play Hyakunin Isshu karuta at home.” For details, go to

—– Reported by Michael Goldstein


Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, and Sei Shonagon, author of The Pillow Book, are also included in the 100 poets in Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. The tanka poem by Murasaki depicts a brief encounter with her old friend, using an analogy of the moon drowned out in clouds, while the one by Sei is a sarcastic replying poem to the person who attempted to trick her, also employing metaphor.


There are many Kyogi Karuta competitions and championships categorized by ranks, ages, regions and gender held nationwide in Japan. Pictured here is the Women’s National Championship.


Chihayafuru (KODANSHA COMICS BL) by Yuki Suetsugu is a popular manga and anime based on Kyogi Karuta. It is being made into live action movies, two parts of a consecutive story, scheduled to be released in spring 2016 in Japan.


Today, the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu karuta craze is gradually spreading in the U.S., and lectures and events are held in colleges and institutions. Contact Ms. Mutsumi Stone, leading lecturer of the Kyogi Karuta and Hyakunin Isshu, for further information.