In the Cards

November 12, 2014
Amanda Nagy
Karuta cards carry ancient poems written in the style of Tanka. Players must memorize all 100 poems in the deck. Photo credit: Jeong Hyun Hwang

One of Japan’s oldest and most influential card games has arrived in Oberlin.

In early November, the newly formed East Asian Game Club introduced karuta, a game of memorization and mental agility that uses poetry as a competitive medium, when it hosted a joint weekend seminar with the University of Michigan. Both campuses hosted Mutsumi Stone, a renowned instructor who is promoting karuta in the United States and around the world, to learn about the history of the game and how it is played.

Henry Aberle, one of the organizers of the event, applied for an arts and culture grant from the Japan Foundation of New York. He was awarded most of the funds needed to bring Stone and run the event on both campuses. A junior with majors in East Asian studies and musical studies, Aberle also helped form the East Asian Game Club in fall 2013. “I started the club with a few friends because we wanted more people to play Mahjong with. I was hoping, though, that the club could become a meeting place for people of multiple interests, but all connecting back to Asia.”

Aberle says his experience with karuta, as well as many other people's living outside of Japan, started with an anime called Chihayafuru. “The manga came out in 2009, but most people caught on in 2011 when the anime was released. The story is all about a high school karuta club, which probably got people in the states thinking, 'maybe we can try that, too,'” says Aberle, who is from Long Island City, New York. “I'm interested in other games, as well, so I didn't make the club specific to one, but I hope we can make karuta a larger part of our club and potentially integrate the game into the Japanese department's extracurricular activities.”

During winter term 2013, Aberle received a Tuckership grant from the East Asian studies department to pursue his interest in karuta in Japan. It was there that he learned about Mutsumi Stone, the only person in the U.S. who is affiliated with the All Japan Karuta Association, which is the leading organization in charge of holding the main tournaments in Japan.

Karuta is played in pairs with players sitting with their legs tucked under them on a tatami mat. The game consists of two sets of cards. One deck is for reading, the other set is for “reciting.” A reader recites the beginning of any poem from "Hyakunin Isshu," an anthology of 100 ancient and medieval poems in the style of Tanka. Each Tanka consists of 31 syllables, or 5 lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, respectively.

Each card carries one poem written in hiragana, but only the last lines of the verse. To look for the card that was read, contestants must have memorized all 100 poems. Players also need to remember where each card is laid down so they can turn over the right one before their opponents do. Because karuta requires memorization, concentration, and speed, it is recognized as a sport in Japan.

“As far as I'm aware, this is the first time karuta has been introduced at Oberlin,” says Aberle. “This isn't surprising to me because it is a game that takes a certain amount of dedication. To truly play the game, one needs to memorize the one hundred poems used and then remember what cards are "in play" during each game. And of course, everything is in Japanese.”

In addition to demonstrations and group play, participants learned games to help them become more comfortable with the poems. "It was really heartwarming to see everyone get so into the games, which can seem daunting if they're not given a chance," Aberle says. "This event set our standard high, so I can't wait to see what future events are in store."

The East Asian Game Club meets several times a week in Asia House. Anyone interested can contact eagc@oberlin.edu.

You may also like…