Try Your Hand at Hanafuda, a Plantation-Era Japanese Card Game

Vintage Japanese card game gets new look, new life.
Hanafuda players
Photos: Aaron K. Yoshino


Hanafuda evokes a hazy memory of old Hawai‘i. Brought to the Islands by Japanese immigrants, the card game spread through plantation socializing, and into gambling dens that lent it some disrepute. Neighbors played, often for money. (There’s a point system that can easily correspond to cents. One cent equals one point. Each game has a maximum of 240 points.)


Teacher Helen Nakano does not play to gamble. She wanted to teach hanafuda to her granddaughter. She remembers talking story with neighbors and family, passing time with the cards and social activity instead of staring at screens. So, in 2010, she started Hanafuda Hawai‘i, hired her son to do the design work, and put out a set of updated cards, with instructions.


Hanafuda cards


“The interest in the game was dying,” she says, and worried that, if the next generation didn’t learn it, the tradition would disappear. She gathered people she could count on—family, friends and the retirees she taught yoga to—to go around the island teaching people of all ages how to play. They are, as she calls them, her hanafuda sensei,  and they teach lessons at schools, churches and community centers to anyone who wants to learn.


She’s also been teaching free weekly classes on Thursdays, 1 to 3 p.m. at Aupuni Place in Ward Warehouse. It’s part of HMSA’s Blue Zone Project, which aims to encourage public health by applying the lessons from places where people live the longest. A defining trait of these “blue zones” isn’t just diet, or even exercise. It’s having social networks.


Hanafuda players


The hanafuda players who show up on Thursdays tend to be older. They can talk about which plantation camps they and their families grew up in. Their games are fast, and they play to win. The regulars mingle with newcomers. There’s Jean Weaver, a retired marketing director, and her daughter Ally Kai. You might see Ben Bruch, a teacher at Pacific Buddhist Academy, who’s interested in learning games from different cultures. Charlie Chong retired from United Airlines in 2003, and used to play with his family growing up, but, surprisingly, not the ones on his Okinawan side. There’s the sensei team, where the teaches play with each other, but swap out to teach someone new how to play. They fondly remember Danny Baysa, a 93-year-old World War II vet who used to show up every week until he passed away. He was grieving the passing of his wife and, at the insistence of his daughter, got out of the house. He found a hobby, and ‘ohana.


Thursdays until July 27, Nakano will be teaching anyone interested in learning at Aupuni Place at Ward Warehouse, bottom floor on the Old Spaghetti Factory side. In August, Ward Warehouse closes to make way for a condo complex. To stay updated about where else you can play and learn, visit