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: 松 matsu, pine
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: 梅 ume, plum
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: 桜 sakura, cherry blossoms
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: 藤 fuji, wisteria
Thanks to the prestige and power of the Heian-era aristocratic Fujiwara (“Wisteria Plains”) clan, the character 藤 (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
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
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: 萩 hagi, bush clover
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: 芒 susuki, silver grass
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: 菊 kiku, chrysanthemum
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
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: 柳 yanagi, willow
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: 桐 kiri, paulownia
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.