Origin of the word "Karuta"

The origin of the word Karuta is the Portuguese word "carta" (playing card). "Carta" means "card" in English.

In the 16th Century, European playing cards were introduced into Japan by Portuguese traders. There were no cards in Japan at that time.Therefore, Japanese people used the original Portuguese word "carta (Karuta)" to explain the objects.

Ever since the Heian period (794-1192), the upper echelons of society had used beautifully painted or lacquered clamshells in a matching game. The game is called Kai-ooi (貝覆い). Only a natural pair of clamshells fits together. The game uses several dozen clamshells. After mixing them up, the players try to find the matching pairs. The luxuriously painted shells were often part of the trousseau of a wealthy bride in the Edo period (1603-1867).

Later, it is thought that Tanka poems were introduced into Kai-ooi. It is not clear, but possibly on one shell of a pair, the first half of a poem was written and on its match, the second half of the poem. Players tried to match a complete poem. Some people consider those shells are forerunners of today’s Karuta. The shells were probably used not only for play but also for education: to memorize famous poems from the past.

After European playing cards were introduced into Japan, card stock replaced painted clamshells as it was extremely costly and time-consuming to prepare hundreds of same-sized clamshells and paint them beautifully. Paper cards were much easier to handle, and many colored cards could be printed at once using a wood block.

Such cards with poems began to be called Uta-karuta(歌かるた). Since the Edo period, many different sets of Uta-karuta cards have been produced, for example Uta-karuta cards using poems from the famous Tale of Genji (源氏物語) , Tales of Ise (伊勢物語) and Ogura Hyakunin-Isshu(小倉百人一首).

Only Ogura Hyakunin-Isshu Karuta has survived to today.