The flowers of Hanafuda

The hanafuda card deck has twelve suits, each named for a month and an associated flower (or flowerlike plant). The seasonal flowers have long histories in poetry and art, often tracing back to Heian Japan or Táng China, and are rich in folklore and trivia. A large part of the appeal of hanafuda for me is the contrast drawn by such poetic themes in a gambling game of the yakuza. The cards pop now and then in popular culture, as in the moveset of Kibagami Genjūrō from the fighting game Samurai Spirits, or the protagonist of female yakuza sexploitation flicks Inoshika Ochō, or in the Ino-Shika-Chō team in Naruto, &c.

These are their flowers.

January: matsu, pine

matsu ni tsuru matsu ni akatan (akayoroshi) matsu no kasu matsu no kasu
photo of pine flower
Photo by Ruiwen Chen.

Being a winter-resistant evergreen, the pine is an auspicious symbol of longevity. The Chinese grouped it with two other plants that endure beautifully in winter, bamboo and plum blossoms; together they make the Three Friends of Winter (歲寒三友 suìhán sānyǒu/saikan-no-san’yu). In Japanese culture this combination of pine, bamboo and plum (松竹梅 shō-chiku-bai) became an important decorative motif; they’re also auspiciously tied to gates in the New Year festivities, and they’re used as a grading system (as symbols for high-, middle- and low-rank). The crane of the first card has a similar set of associations: longevity and New Year. Cranes often rest atop high pines in Japanese painting, but they can’t climb trees in real life; they probably were confused with tree-loving storks.

The red poem doesn’t say *anoyoroshi but akayoroshi; the second character is a hentaigana character for “ka”. The meaning, however, is disputed (Nintendō’s website says, perhaps in jest, that it’s currently under research). One possible derivation is 明らかに良い akiraka ni yoi, “clearly good”.

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