Chihayafuru: The Intense But Respectful Game of Karuta, Explained

Chihayafuru isn't just a popular anime and manga series -- it's also become a bit of a cultural phenomenon in the realm of card games. Featuring a young girl named Chihaya Ayase who becomes determined to play the game known as karuta professionally, the series has inspired a similar renaissance in real life as well.

Season 3 of the Chihayafuru anime is soon to release in the West, so now's the perfect time to look at the intricate rules of its central traditional card game. Here's what anime fans and Japanese cultural enthusiasts should know about the history and rules of karuta, and how the game is portrayed in Chihayafuru.

The Premise and Rules of Karuta

Karuta is based around playing cards that were first introduced to Japan by the Portuguese around the 16th century. The variant of the game played in Chihayafuru is Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, with the prefix in the variant's title meaning "one hundred poets, one poem each." This difficult-sounding contest is arguably even more daunting than it appears, as it combines a card game with classic poetry and memorization.

Competitive games are played between two players, with a judge and a card reader also present. The types of cards used in the game are yomifuda and torifuda, with the former containing a poem and the latter having only the ending lines of the corresponding poem. Each player gets 25 cards, with the remaining 50 of the 100 game cards being referred to as "dead" or "ghost" cards. The players have 15 minutes to memorize the poems and placement of the cards.

Once the match officially begins, the card reader will begin reciting a poem and each player aims to touch the corresponding torifuda card first. Touching the incorrect card results in a penalty, during which the opponent can send one of their cards to the other side. Touching the correct card, however, will clear it for the player, with the player who empties their side of cards first being crowned the winner.

There are other rules and terms for karuta, such as Unmei-sen, where two players are tied with only one card left, turning the match into a sudden death elimination. Genpei-sen is an unofficial type of match that absconds with ghost cards and instead uses all 100 cards in a game.

Karuta in the Chihayafuru Anime

Different techniques can be employed to defend one's card territory or play mind games. Kakoi-te allows the player to cover their card until it's determined that it's the matching card needed. The Watari-te, or Cross Hand technique, is another way to prevent a touching penalty, while Midori-te has a player pulling their opponent's hand away from their deck and toward their own.

Many of these techniques appear in the Chihayafuru anime and manga, such as in the fourth episode where protagonist Chihaya tries in vain to overlook an opponent's Kakoi-te cover. Chihayafuru's firm adherence and respect for how the game is played has made real-life matches increasingly common, with fans of the series even taking part in real-life karuta competitions.

About The Author