Competitive Karuta Boom Inspired by Manga
To play Hyakunin Isshu karuta, someone reads out a poem, and a player must identify the card—faster than the opponents—with only the second half of the poem displayed on it, just by listening to the first half of the poem. In the modern era, the game evolved into a more formalized style of play known as "competitive karuta," where two players race head-to-head. In competitive karuta, not only do you need to know all of the poems by heart, but you also need excellent visual, listening and concentration skills, as well as stamina.
Contrary to its image as a beautiful poetry game, competitive karuta is a tough game, often likened to the martial arts. The cards are laid out on the tatami mat floor, and the players face each other across the cards. As soon as the reader begins to read a poem, the players, quick as a flash, identify the corresponding card. The player slaps the card with his or her hand producing a resounding thud, and sometimes the card flips dramatically up into the air.
A manga led to the boom in competitive karuta: Chihayafuru—starring Chihaya, a girl who grows through competitive karuta.
© Yuki Suetsugu/Kodansha Ltd.
Only half of the 100 cards are used, and the players each take 25 cards and arrange them in front of themselves. As there are 100 poems in total, sometimes the poem being read is not among the poems on the cards laid out. The players must concentrate extremely hard in order not to make a mistake and take the wrong card by accident. This combination of intellectual skills and high-speed reactions is what makes this version of karuta so popular.
Recently, competitive karuta saw a boom in popularity after it was the subject of a manga called Chihayafuru. This manga is so popular that it has run to 15 volumes so far and sold three million copies, as well as being turned into a TV animation show. In the story, the heroine develops strong relationships with her card-playing friends, and readers see her develop and grow through the challenges of the difficult competitions.
Chihaya swats the correct card the instant the reader starts to recite a poem.
©Yuki Suetsugu/Kodansha Ltd.
National senior high school tournament. All karuta players want to play in this highly competitive karuta contest.
(Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun)
The number of children joining Hyakunin Isshu karuta clubs around the country has swelled as admiration for this heroine has inspired them to take up competitive karuta. Many of these children appear to be hoping to continue to play this game at clubs in junior and senior high schools and compete in national tournaments.
It is amazing to see how these classical poems, with their venerable history, are being revitalized by young Japanese people today through this popular card game.
(Updated in March 2012)