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”.

February: ume, plum

ume ni uguisu
ume ni akatan (akayoroshi)
ume no kasu
ume no kasu
photo of plum blossoms
Photo by Kempei.

Prunus mume, the Japanese apricot or Chinese plum. Another of the Friends of Winter loved in Chinese art. The fruit is used for umeboshi and umezuke pickled plums (often dyed with red shiso) – and also umeshu, the delicious fruit liquor. Being the first flower to blossom still during winter, it’s a symbol of perseverance, strength, and of the arrival of spring. Often pictured as red, though the real flowers range from white to pale rose to a lush pink. Long associated with the bush warbler (uguisu) (depicted in the animal card), the cry of which was also considered to be a sign of the arrival of spring.

March: sakura, cherry blossoms

sakura ni maku
sakura ni akatan (miyoshino)
sakura no kasu
sakura no kasu
photo of cherry blossoms
Photo by Penta.

A symbol of the transience of things (mono no aware) since they die (fall) while still beautiful. A standard symbol of spring, and often called a symbol of Japan. Very similar to the peach flower; cherry blossoms can be distinguished by distinctive cuts in the petal tips. The cultivated flower tree doesn’t produce edible fruit, devoting all its energies to blossoming. In the Nara period the word hana “flower”, by itself, indicated the plum blossom; tastes shifted progressively, and by the Middle Ages the cherry had won the word. Hanami, the custom of “flower viewing”, changed accordingly. The curtain of the first card is hiding a flower-viewing party. The poem strip says “Miyoshino”, thought to refer to a place in Nara famous for its cherry blossoms.

April: fuji, wisteria

fuji ni hototogisu
fuji ni tanzaku
fuji no kasu
fuji no kasu

photo of wisteria flowers

Photo by Masao.

Thanks to the prestige and power of the Heian-era aristocratic Fujiwara (“Wisteria Plains”) clan, the character (fuji) is still a very popular component of family names, including the most used in Japan, Satō 佐藤. The flower is a valued subject of art and nature observation, and an important motif in Heian literature (onwards). It makes one think of Genji and courtly elegance. The hototogisu cuckoo is said in the Man’yōshū to sing from the season of wisterias.

The old “April”, i.e. the fourth lunar month, was named uzuki, after the small, white deutzia flowers (u-no-hana)—or possibly the other way around. In any case hanafuda cards don’t use the deutzia.

May: 菖蒲 ayame, iris

ayame ni yatsuhashi
ayame ni tanzaku
ayame no kasu
ayame no kasu

photo of iris flowers

Photo by autan.

A purple water flower. It’s associated in poetry with summer, and in art with the eight-plank bridge (yatsuhashi)—a kind of low, zig-zag bridge often built over iris marshes in gardens, in reference to an episode in the Ise Monogatari (an actual yatsuhashi can be in fact longer than eight planks).

June: 牡丹 botan, peony

botan ni chō
botan ni aotan
botan no kasu
botan no kasu
photo of peony
Photo by ks-studio.

A flower admired since Táng China, an admiration which also spread to Heian Japan (when, judging from the Makura no Sōshi, it was considered to contribute to a Chinese atmosphere). In the arts a floral arabesque pattern (botan karakusa) became popular, spreading quickly, and many variations were devised.

July: hagi, bush clover

hagi ni inoshishi
hagi ni tanzaku
hagi no kasu
hagi no kasu
photo of blush clover/lespedezas
Photo by usagi205.

The bush clover or lespedeza is one of the Seven Grasses of Autumn (aki no nanakusa), as first defined in the Man’yōshū by Yamanoe no Okura. The seven would go on to become subjects in poetry, ceramic, textiles &c., and of the group, the bush clover was the most praised in the Man’yōshū. Together with silver grass (susuki) and dumplings (dango), it’s offered to the moon in harvest-moon viewing festivals (tsukimi).

August: susuki, silver grass

susuki ni tsuki
susuki ni kari
susuki no kasu
susuki no kasu
photo of susuki grass
Photo by chūnen oji-san.

Also translated as Chinese silver grass, pampas grass, Eulalia grass, maiden grass &c., and called the “tail flower” (obana) for its resemblance to an animal’s tail. Another of the Seven Grasses of Autumn, and paired with the bush clover as decoration and offering in moon-vieweing festivals. In Okinawa, the leaves are knotted as talismans against evil.

The hanafuda suit is also called “baldie” (bōzu) for obvious reasons.

September: kiku, chrysanthemum

kiku ni sakazuki
kiku ni aotan
kiku no kasu
kiku no kasu
photo of chrysanthemum
Photo by West Zest.

Symbol of the Japanese Throne and crest (mon) of the Imperial Family; also a motif in many other family crests. Metonimically, a symbol of Japan. The Chrysanthemum Festival (chōyō), celebrated in the 9th day of the 9th month, originated as a religious observance in China to ward off the excess energy of the day—the number 9 being considered particularly yáng (thus the name, “piled yáng”). One of several cleansing practices was to drink chrysanthemum saké (kikuzake). The Heian nobles thought it all very poetic and turned the festival into an elegant celebration, with banquets and singing.

October: 紅葉 momiji, maple leaves

momiji ni shika
momiji ni aotan
momiji no kasu
momiji no kasu
photo of maple leaves
Photo by Kanops.

By far the favourite of autumn, a main topic of poetry since forever, and target of “red leaf hunting” (momijigari)—the practice of traveling to see the autumn colors. The word momiji often refers to the colored leaves more than to the maple plant itself. It’s associated with the deer, to the point that venison was called maple meat (momiji-niku). The cry of a lone deer is thought to deepen the feeling of solitute (sabi) typical of autumn.

November: yanagi, willow

yanagi ni Ono-no-Michikaze
yanagi ni tsubame
yanagi ni tanzaku
yanagi no kasu / onifuda
photo of willow tree
Photo by Masao.

Perhaps because it likes dampness and grows next to water bodies, the tree is associated with rain, and the hanafuda suit can be called “rain” (ame) instead of “willow”. The bark and leaves contain salicin, a component of aspirin, and have long been used as pain and fever medicine worldwide, Japan included. There are a number of folkloric stories and traditions about spirits living inside of or being reborn as willow trees. Saigyō has a famous tanka about resting under a willow tree, which inspired the Nō play Yugyō Yanagi, in which a wandering priest meet the spirit of Saigyō’s willow. Bashō, a Saigyō fan, would later seek the same willow and gleefully rest under it, waxing poetic about the experience.

Pictured in the first card is Ono-no-Michikaze, one of the Three Great Names of kana calligraphy. It’s said that he was inspired to persevere on the path when he saw a jumping frog trying to reach a willow branch. I don’t know what’s the association with the swallow (tsubame) of the second card, other than the flowing tails of tree and bird.

There’s something disturbing in the abstract design of the kasu card for this month. It’s called a “demon hitting drums in the rain” (as in thunder) or a “devil’s card” (onifuda), and some decks picture it literally as such. In the common rules it’s just another low-value kasu, but in some game variants it’s used as a joker-like wildcard.

December: kiri, paulownia

kiri ni hōō
kiri no kasu
kiri no kasu
kiri no kasu
photo of flowering paulownia tree
Photo by Tony Rodd.

Considered to be a holy tree in Shintoism. There’s a folkloric tidbit teaching that the phoenix bird (hō-ō) will only land on the paulownia tree, and then again only if a wise ruler rules the land. The light, high-quality wood is prized for carving, furniture and instrument-making, especially for the koto.

Copyright information and other unpoetic data is usually printed in the last three cards, as in this standard Nintendō 任天堂 deck.

Credits: Card images from Info from the wikipedias, chiebukuro, The Internet, and Japanese lit classes :)

14 thoughts on “The flowers of Hanafuda

  1. Bônus para falantes de português: Glossário aproximado:

    1. matsu: Pinheiro.
    2. ume-no-hana: Flor de ameixeira.
    3. sakura: Flor de cerejeira.
    4. fuji: Glicínia, glicínia-do-Japão.
    5. ayame: Íris.
    6. botan: Peônia.
    7. hagi: Lespedeza.
    8. susuki: Eulália.
    9. kiku: Crisântemo.
    10. momiji: Bordo, folhas de bordo.
    11. yanagi: Salgueiro, salgueiro-chorão.
    12. kiri: Paulownia, paulônia.

    (Fonte principal: Michaelis.)

  2. You seem to know a lot about Hanafuda! I actually have a question about 5 cards in particular that I’ve been unable to answer despite an exhaustive search of the internet.

    February’s nightingale, May’s bridge, June’s butterflies, July’s boar, and September’s sake cup.

    All 5 of these cards share something that doesn’t appear on any of the other 43 cards in the deck: red clouds hanging at the top. I can’t find any sort of explanation or significance behind their inclusion.

    Would you possibly be able to shed some light on why these red clouds are present?

    • Thanks for the comment! You know, I’ve never noticed these clouds until you’ve pointed them out. We can note that all red-cloud cards are 10-point (tane) cards (though the converse isn’t true). I’m not real knowledgeable about hanafuda art (like, say, a scholar of visual arts would be), but those symbolic clouds are a tradition in Chinese and Japanese painting, woodblock printing, ceramics etc. – as is the color red; and perhaps the cards are just imitating the style. I don’t know if there’s any special meanings, and I haven’t had much luck with the Japanese internets either. I wonder if decks other than Nintendo’s also have clouds in the same cards…

      • Yes, actually, they do! Every deck of hanafuda, regardless of origin, seems to have the same red clouds on those particular 5 cards. If it were just a design choice by one company I’d accept that they’re just a random artistic addition, but since their inclusion is consistent across every deck I assume there’s some reason for their being there. Anywho, I appreciate your help.

        The Mystery of the Red Clouds: the search continues!

      • Good news! I got in touch with the oldest manufacturer of Hanafuda in Japan, the Ohishi-Tengudo Corporation, and asked them about the red clouds. They actually took the time to research it and got back to me with an answer!

        This is what they said:
        Sorry for the late reply. We confirmed it in various ways. The history of Japanese playing cards. There was a period that was used in gambling. A bunch of Japanese playing cards, hide in the hands.
        And, we have to not show the meaning of the cards to others. With a slight a difference of picture, ascertained a cards. It is a professional gambler of the Edo Period of Japan of the technique. For your information. Thank you.

        The English is a bit rough, but I’m assuming he means that during the Edo period there was a game that gamblers played where they held cards in their hand face up and had someone else choose a card. Those unfamiliar with the pictures on the cards wouldn’t really know whether they were choosing a “kasu” card or a “tane” card from the cards in the other person’s hand. Those in the know would realize that the cards with red clouds were always tane. The remaining tane cards all have other minor characteristics in the top right corner that would prevent them from being confused with the kasu variety of that suit.

        • I think I’m a bit late, but maybe that gambling technique has something to do with when the yakuza used this cards to fool people, so maybe against other players, (those who cheated having people telling their rival’s cards) holding the cards like that was effective, because that way you make the ones behind you have difficulties to see your cards. So a way for the player to know what cards he had were those red clouds.
          I think my koi-koi teacher told me something like that too.
          I hope I helped with the research, even if I’m 2 years late. ^-^

        • The way I read their reply is that the player wants to be able to hide the cards in their hand but also see what they have, so the red clouds act in a similar way to the indices on western playing cards.

  3. Dear Leonardo,
    Your presentaton on the flowers of Hanafuda was exceptionally well done. I was seeking information about hanafuda because I am considering presenting a design your own Hanafuda card game for Anime USA this year. I usually teach doll making at the convention, but I am an art teacher and my experience covers drawing, painting, cartooning and a little game design, thanks to my son who graduated from Digipen. So when My kids suggested it I thought I wold give it a try. Having read your essay, I am rethinking how I would present the flower suits. I hope you do not mind if I use some of your information in my preface to making the cards.
    My interest in Japan began when my first daughter was born on Japanese girls day in 1980. A japanese person at the baby shower commented how lucky I was that she was born on Hinamatsuri. I asked why? and the rest is history. My daughter went on to study Japanese and taught English in Japan for two years . I have been presenting Hinamatsuri events to schools, libraries, senior centers and finally at anime conventions ever since. Your’s is one of the most well done and beautiful articles that I have come across in my quest for more information about Japan. Thank You. You knw you have impressed me because I NEVER write anything on the internet. I am a bit allergic to it.

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