Field Notes: This Plantation-Era Japanese Card Game is Making a Comeback
Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vast and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: hanafuda.
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
What it is
Brought to the Islands by Japanese immigrants, hanafuda was played by plantation workers, and drifted into the Chinatown underbelly. It was frowned upon by the upper-crust of Japanese society but remained popular. Chalk that up to Hawai‘i’s working-class, melting-pot culture. These days, most hanafuda cards sit in a dusty box in a closet somewhere. The rules, forgotten by many, change neighborhood to neighborhood for the few who carry on the tradition.
Hanafuda, at its core, is a matching game. There are 48 small cards made up of 12 suits—one for each month—and four cards per suit. In traditional Japanese sets, each suit is identified by a specific plant corresponding to the season of its month. February, for example, is identified by the ume blossom, to represent the coming spring.
How to play
Players have cards in their hands, while more cards are placed face-up on the table. The rest are stacked face-down in a deck. Players match a card from their hand with one on the table, then flip a card from the deck, matching that one to a face-up card if possible. The game goes until everyone runs out of cards. The game is usually played in two teams of two.
The faded images on old hanafuda cards drifted into public domain long ago, which helped Helen Nakano start her company.
She hired her son Jason to design new hanafuda cards. The first gift set arrived in August 2011, and she drummed up interest by playing every Sunday at Mānoa Marketplace for a month. In 2013, she released the game in the standard playing-card size.
It wasn’t until July 2016, in a grand redesign, that Nakano released Hanafuda Nā Pua Hawai‘i. Working on illustrations with her son, and consulting about a dozen Native Hawaiian cultural experts, she adapted the cards to show Hawaiian plants instead of the 12 months. The wild Gaji is now the Lono card, god of rain and winter storms.
There’s only one card in the deck with the image of a person. In the Japanese deck, the person is Ono No Tōfū, the scholar famed for spreading a simplified Japanese alphabet, and increasing Japan’s literacy rate to one of the best in the world. Nakano decided to put her hero, Mary Kawena Pukui, on a card, to honor her legacy of passing down knowledge to future generations.
Nakano’s inspiration for all of it was a desire to play with her granddaughter. “I always work really hard to beat her,” she says, and usually does. Until the last time they played. Nakano was waiting to see her granddaughter off at the airport and lost—“Three times.”
Nakano decided to put her hero, Mary Kawena Pukui, on a card, to honor her legacy of passing down knowledge to future generations.
Photos: David Croxford
Where to play
Nakano used to hold weekly classes at Ward Warehouse. She also goes around the island teaching people of all ages how to play. “The interest in the game was dying,” she says. Without teaching it to the next generation, she felt a whole tradition could disappear. She runs lessons at schools, churches, and community centers for anyone who wants to learn.
Types of cards
Yaku: Special combinations of cards that knock 50 points off opponents’ scores.
Gaji: The lighting card. Part of the November (willow) suit. The card is wild, and can take any other card on the table, unless …
Hiki: ... a player is about to take all four cards in a suit. That makes a Hiki, and the Gaji cannot break it up.
It’s easy to start playing, as there are only a few choices each player can make each turn. But to play well, players need to be able to memorize which cards were played, and keep an eye out for making yaku.
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino
Helen Nakano, 80
Owner of Hanafuda Hawai‘i LLC
“My mission is to bring generations a little closer.”
Pohai Del Rosario, 16
Sophomore at St. Andrew’s Priory
“I used to play, until my grandma passed away in 2014. I’ll probably start playing again with my mom.”
Doris Nakamura, “Don’t ask!”
Retired occupational therapist/caregiver
“My husband passed away in 2010, and I’m so grateful to Helen for putting this group together, and being a part of it.”
To try a class yourself, visit hanafudahawaii.com.