Wednesday 2 January 2019

Home Life in Tokyo By Jukichi Inouye (1910)

The author of this volume set out to communicate to western readers some of the day-to-day realities of Japanese culture;
I am aware that there are already many excellent works on Japan which may be read with great profit; but as their authors are most of them Europeans or Americans, and naturally look at Japanese life and civilisation from an occidental point of view, it occurred to me that notwithstanding the super-abundance of books on Japan, a description of Japanese life by a native of the country might not be without interest.
The image shows a set of Hanafuda (literally flower-cards) which are used for games of chance that had originally became popular in Japan in the Edo period (1603-1867). The full set of cards are composed of twelve suits, each of four cards, with each suit matching a month of the year. The imagery for each suit is based on a flower, tree or grass that typically blooms in that month.

Matsu (Pine - January)
Ume (Plum blossom - February)
Sakura (Cherry blossom - March)
Fuji (Wisteria - April)
Ayame (Iris - May)
Botan (Peony - June)
Hagi (Bush clover - July)
Susuki (Silver grass - August)
Kiku (Chrysanthemum - September)
Momiji (Maple - October)
Yanagi (Willow - November)
Kiri (Paulownia - December)

The Hanafuda are descended from European playing cards that were introduced to Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese missionaries and sailors. 

These cards are smaller than a typical western playing card, but they are much thicker and more visually sophisticated. Each suit incorporates cards of different ranks, indicated with coloured ribbons or cultural allusions. Reading across left to right the top-most cards are called: Crane; Nightingale; Curtain; Cuckoo; Bridge; Butterflies; Boar; Moon; Sake Cup; Deer; Rain; Phonenix. Other cards have distinctive, but almost abstract, patterns. For example, the gaji card on the bottom row for November depicts the strong storms and hurricanes of this time of the year - the black and red shapes being the stylised outline of a tornado or waterspout. This card is often used in games as a wild-card.

Although Hanafuda cards were designed in the Edo period, many of the motifs that are used make allusion to the much earlier Heian period (794 - 1185) of Japanese culture. In his book Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons, Haruo Shirane notes that;     
With the exception of the peony, which entered the poetic canon in the Edo period, all the images are from classical poetry of the Heian period and reflect urban commoners' knowledge of the poetic and cultural associations of the months.
Some of the pairings of symbols shown on the cards are considered to be particularly harmonious; pine & crane, plum blossom & warbler, cuckoo & wisteria, and butterfly & peony.  

The Hanafuda are a concentrated visual summary of many aspects of Japanese culture. The top card of the Willow suit refers to a well known story about perseverance that features a willow, a leaping frog and the famous Heian era calligrapher Ono no Michikaze (894 - 966), one of the founders of Japanese style calligraphy. 

Scanned copy of Original HERE.

Image Caption: A complete set of Hanafuda cards arranged left to right in month order (January - December). The top row shows the highest value cards in each suit.


Baird, M.C. (2001). Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. Rizzoli, New York.

Shirane, H. (2012). Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts. Columbia University Press. New York.