Japanese card games featured

This post contains affiliate links. If any purchases are made from the links in this post I may earn a percentage which will help support this site. For more information please visit my affiliate disclaimer.

Quick selection

Back to basics

In an era of online games and an abundance of other digital media and entertainment, card games remain popular in many households. While i’m sure more than a game or two of Uno have been played in Japan, it’s not without its own number of traditional Japanese card games; games that still see frequent use as well as also being portrayed in the self-same media mentioned above. 

The good news is, a variety of these Japanese card games can be played in a variety of forms even outside of Japan. 

In order to take up this opportunity, we first have to discover; what games are there? How do you play them? As well as things like; what types of cards do they use? Well, fear not as these are (funny enough) the exact questions I intend to answer, as well as where to go to start playing.

Japanese card decks

In order to play most Japanese card games — at least in the physical sense — you will need the correct deck of cards; which, by the way, is not the same deck that most western countries use, that being the standard 52 deck of numbers and suits. 

Instead, there are multiple different decks which vary depending on the game. Some feature just pictures, some have numbers and symbols, and some have entire poems and depictions. For the purpose of this article I’m going to cover 3 types of decks which are the most played. 

Hanafuda cards

First, and perhaps the most widely used, is the deck known as Hanafuda (花札) meaning ‘flower cards’. This is a 48 card deck that primarily features flowers and plants along with other images such as scrolls and animals. 

If we compare them to the western 52 card deck for a moment, Hanafuda is also split into what you can call suits, however in this case there are twelve suits, one for each month of the year, meaning that there are 4 cards per suit. Instead of hearts and clubs, each suit is distinguishable by a flower that corresponds to the month. For example, March is cherry blossom and October is maple. 

The four cards within a suit/month then follow a rarity element. For example: the first two cards of a suit are basic, featuring just the corresponding flower or plant for the month (apart from December which has 3 and November has 1), the following two cards are of a higher tier, featuring the basic flower plus an additional image such as a scroll, animal or scene. 

A table of all cards may help explain this further. (click to enlarge.)

A list of Japanese cards
A list of all the Hanafuda cards are their associated month/flower. All card images are attributed to Louie Mantia, すけじょ, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The most reliable place to buy a traditional Hanafuda deck seems to be on Amazon (paid link), However Ebay is also a good source.

Kabufuda cards

Next is an entirely different deck by the name of Kabufuda (株札) with a more ambiguous meaning of ‘stock cards’. This deck consists of 40 cards that are much simpler to understand than Hanafuda. Whilst the Kabufuda deck may look unfamiliar, they work in a similar way to the standard 52 card deck.

This deck is separated into 4 sets of identical 1-10 number cards. They also feature a progressively involved pattern where 1 is a basic pattern and 9 being an advanced version; 10 depicts an image similar to a king in the western deck. 

Kabufuda deck
A complete set of Kabufuda cards

Once again Ebay seems to be the place to go to get a genuine Kabufuda deck. However, you can often replace it with a standard 52 deck if you remove all kings, queens, jacks, and aces.

Karuta cards

Karuta is the last Japanese card deck I’m going to cover, however it also has the most variation. The term Karuta can refer to both the type of deck as well as a game itself (which we’ll get to later), and deck size can vary depending on the type of game. 

No matter what deck size the game requires, there are certain characteristics that it follows, such as: the deck always comes in two halves; one half features only words, phrases, descriptions, or poems; the other half contains images and text related to those words etc. Essentially they come in pairs. 

The only problem you’ll have with a Karuta deck, and subsequently playing the associated game, is that the text is written in Japanese — at least in the traditional deck. 

karuta cards
Two paired Karuta cards. Ceridwen, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR , via Wikimedia Commons

You are able to acquire an English translated set of cards on Amazon (paid link) which would be ideal, however, these are quite expensive. Another option is (again) Ebay, something like this for an example.

Japanese games

Hanafuda card games


Our first card game named koi-koi meaning ‘come on’, is a two player game about matching cards from the same suit in order to make combinations and score points. A game typically consists of 12 rounds where each round is a separate hand. 

Hanafuda Koi Koi game
Marcus Richert, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


In each round players start with 8 cards in hand, with 8 cards face-up in the centre of the table. From there, each player takes turns to try and match a card from their hand to a card of relevant suit/month on the table, in which case you ‘capture’ both cards and put them in your scoring pile — not in your hand. 

If you don’t have any matching cards you simply place one of your cards into the centre layout. 

The player then takes the top card of the remaining draw pile and attempts to do the same thing with the revealed card. 

This is the end of a single player turn.

This rotation continues until one player achieves a scoring combination from the cards in their score pile. 


When a player achieves a scoring combination, they have two choices: the first being to stop that round of play and essentially ‘bank’ their scoring points which is then taken from the opposing players score and added to your own; or, they can call koi-koi and the round continues.

Calling koi-koi means players get another opportunity to make another scoring combination. If successful, all scoring combinations made within that round are now worth double. This can be repeated as many times as possible. 

For example: a normal scoring combination might be worth 8 points; calling koi-koi means it is now worth 16; doing so again means it is now worth 32; and so on. 

However, calling koi-koi can be risky as it allows the opponents to also score. Whoever scores first after a koi-koi is called has the opportunity to bank their score with the koi-koi doubling bonus — regardless of who originally called it. 

Scoring combinations

The scorable combinations in Koi-koi are as follows (see the Hanafuda deck section for images of the cards):

    • 10 basic cards = 1 point (1 point for every additional basic card thereafter).
    • 5 scrolls of any colour = 1 point (1 point for every additional scroll thereafter).
    • 5 animals = 1 point (1 point for every additional animal thereafter).
    • All 3 blue scrolls = 6 points.
    • All 3 red worded scrolls (poetry scrolls) = 6 points.
    • The boar, deer, and butterfly, = 6 points.
    • The sake cup (September) and the moon (August) = 5 points.

Bright cards refer to a number of unique cards in the deck: these are: the crane (January); the curtain (March); the moon (august); the rain man (November); and the Chinese phoenix (December). These contribute to more scoring combinations:

    • The crane, curtain, and moon = 6 points.
    • The phoenix, curtain, moon, and rain man = 8 points.
    • The crane, curtain, moon, and phoenix = 9 points.
    • The crane, curtain, moon, phoenix, and rain man = 12 points.

Specific rules and exceptions

    • When dealing, cards are dealt in twos to each area until the required number is reached: two to the opposing player; two to the middle, two to the dealer, repeating until everyone receives 8 cards.
    • If the table receives all 4 cards of the same suit, reshuffle and re-deal the cards.
    • If a card you are playing matches with a choice of two on the table, you choose only one to capture; if it matches with 3 cards, you capture all of them (that would be the entire suit).

Other ways to play Hanafuda

Due to the popularity of Koi-Koi, playing with a physical set of cards isn’t the only option. Playing online has become a real possibility with games available on steam as well as apps on mobiles such as Hanafuda Koi-koi dojo which I’ve been using.


Once you have got the gist of Koi-koi you might try considering Hachi-hachi in what is a step up in terms of complexity. It is a very similar game to koi-koi in terms of setup, scoring and combinations, however, there are also new additional steps and variations above and beyond the previous game. 

To begin, Hachi-hachi can be played with 3 or more players and commonly uses an additional points mechanic known as kan, as well as points. In Hach-hachi, players are dealt a set of seven cards in the beginning with the table receiving 6 — instead of the 8 seen previously. 

After the cards have been dealt there is also an additional scoring opportunity before any cards have even been played, as well as an initial points multiplier depending on what cards are face-up on the table at the beginning of a round. 

In truth, this game possesses a variety of nuances that requires a lot more explanation than Koi-koi; as such a fantastic guide can be found on fudawiki.org that is far more in-depth than I could possibly replicate. So I highly suggest giving the link a visit if you are considering finding out more.

Karuta card game

The game of Karuta is a fairly unique Japanese card game that is simple to set up and play compared to the other Hanafuda card games mentioned previously. It’s a game that hones and rewards observation, analysis, and reaction times.

White playing cards spread across the floor
Koichiro Ohba, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


The Karuta deck is split into two halves; one featuring all of the cards with purely phrases, poems etc. known as toirfuda; the other half is all the cards with pictures, known as yomifuda — literally meaning ‘taking cards’ and ‘ewading cards’ respectively. This gives a pretty good idea of what occurs in Karuta.

The reading cards are then given to one of the players, which rotates every round, the other players must listen to what is being read out and match the description, phrase etc. to the ‘taking cards’ that are spread on the surface between them.


The first player to touch the correct corresponding card gets a point. Simple.

Types of Karuta

There are primarily two types of Karuta: the most traditional is known as Uta-Garuta which means ‘poem cards’ where the deck consists of poems and corresponding images. The other type is called Iroha Karuta which is aimed at children or for helping teach the Japanese alphabet. 

Due to the paired nature of this card game it is now also possible to find many other Karuta card designs, whether it be famous artworks or anime characters. 

You might also be interested in:

Play Japanese crane games online from anywhere.

Kabufuda card games



The game of Oicho-kabu again uses another completely different set of cards, however, this time we are getting into familiar territory as it’s often dubbed as the Japanese version of baccarat, albeit with some noticeable differences — of course. This game more closely resembles that of a casino game and has an emphasis on betting to win.

The aim of Oicho-kabu is to achieve a hand that is closest to a total value of 9. Both players and the dealer try to achieve this goal. Players win by choosing and betting on one of four hands that is on the table, the dealer builds their own hand to beat them. 


    • The game starts with the dealer lining up four cards face up on the table; these will form the base of four hands (in a column fashion). From here, each player may bet on any number of the cards they think is most likely to build into a score of 9.
    • After all bets are made the dealer will deal themselves one card face down.
    • The dealer will then place another set of four cards below those already on the table, this time face down. Players who have made a bet on the previous card in the column may look at the new card. Depending on how close to 9 the two cards currently add up to, they may ask for one more additional card. (There are certain rules and exceptions here. See below.) 
    • These are the players’ completed hands.
    • It is then the dealers turn to draw a second card and view their hand; they may also decide whether to draw a third card or not depending on their current score. 
    • After the dealer has decided on their hand, all cards are revealed and the winners and losers decided. 


If the dealer’s hand is closest to 9, that is the end of the round and all players lose their bet. If one of the hands on the table beats the dealer then the players that bet on that hand win, all others lose. 

It’s possible for all four player hands to beat the dealer; it doesn’t matter if one player’ hand is better than another — players compete against the dealer, not each other.

Specific rules and exceptions

    • It is possible for cards to add up beyond 9, however, there is a point cycle, for example: if they add up to 10, the score becomes 0; if they add up to 11, the score becomes 1 and so on.  
    • After the second row of player cards have been dealt, if they add up to 3 or less, you must accept a 3rd card. 
    • After the second row of player cards have been dealt, if they add up to 7 or more, you cannot draw a third card.
    • If multiple players bet on the same initial card, starting with the player on the left of the dealer, they will decide whether to draw a third card or not. This responsibility is passed along to the next player after every round.


As you can see Japanese card games are very much alive and well, and offer an experience that is somewhat different to other western games; even with games such as Oicho-kabu which has elements of baccarat, they offer a different twist. These are just a handful of some of the most popular Japanese card games at their basic level, but there will be numerous other variations of these with numerous house rules. 

Some may sound confusing on paper, especially koi-koi and Hachi-hachi, but after a couple of hands they quickly get very familiar and fun can really begin. The decks may certainly get a bit of getting used to however, being a bit more complicated than the western 52 card deck we all know and love, but the effort is doing so rewards you with the ability to pick up and play a little piece of traditional Japanese entertainment — and that feels quite special.