7 Traditional Japanese Games to Play at Home
Happy Children’s Day! In Japan, Golden week is coming to a close with the final national holiday, Children’s Day. To learn a bit more about it, you can read our blog post all about Golden Week in Japan! In honour of this national holiday – and everlasting boredom – we thought we would share some traditional games you can play at home! Japan has plenty of traditional and popular games, some are similar to Western games and some you’ve likely never heard of! I’ve rounded up 7 traditional Japanese games for you to try out alone or with the family:
1. Karuta 2. Hanafuda 3. Hanetsuki
4. Janken 5. Kendama 6. Keidoro 7. Bingo
Karuta – かるた
‘Karuta’ comes from the Portugese for cards, ‘carta’ (not just a happy coincidence, sadly). It’s an ancient card game with re-emerging popularity in Japan and across the world today. Personally, I only heard of the game when I met my German friend in Japan who competes with her university club. Karuta isn’t a slow-paced card game but more of a rapid, high-focus sport! The game involves two sets of 100 cards – one set are the yomifuda (or reading cards) and the second are the torifuda (or grabbing cards). There are several versions of karuta but the most popular are uta–garuta and iroha-karuta.
読み札 (よみふだ) yomifuda – Reading cards; 読む (よむ) yomu – to read
取り札 (とりふだ) torifuda – Grabbing cards; 取る (とる) toru – to take
Uta-garuta – 歌がるた (うたがるた)
This version is the most popular. Each of the yomifuda contains three lines of a Japanese poem, and the final two are on the corresponding torifuda. With the cards laid out between them, two oponents compete to collect the most cards. Before the game begins, the torifuda are randomly split between the players for them to organise as they choose. Then, the reader (an impartial third party) reads aloud the yomifuda. Uta means song or poem, reflecting the central component of the game. The key to success in this game is to memorise the 100 poems in full, and devise a layout for your torifuda. For instance, grouping cards by the first letter of the line! The game is fast, and if you’re anywhere near as competitive as me, you’ll find yourself slapping your oponent’s hands to try and win the cards!
歌 (うた), uta = song, poem; がるた garuta = cards (same as karuta)
Iroha Karuta – (いろはかるた)
Iroha karuta is a simpler version, targeted more towards a younger audience. Instead of poetry across the cards, the yomifuda feature one hiragana letter and a picture. The torifuda each display a proverb beginning with the letter on the yomifuda which also corresponds to its picture.
Hanafuda – 花札 (はなふだ)
Hanafuda are a set of 48 cards used to play different game variations such as Koi-koi, Tensho and Hachi. The 48 cards are split into 12 suits: one for each month of the year. Each month of the year is represented by a flower which blooms in that month. The flower or plant is portrayed across the four cards that make up the suit. ‘Ribbon’, ‘Animal’ and ‘Bright’ cards often hold more value than simple flower cards.
Although the game varies, here’s a general explanation of the game! The aim is to have the most points, though you can play in rounds or until a given number of points is reached. After shuffling the cards, eight are laid out facing up between the players, and eight are placed faced-down to each player. For games involving more than 2 players, reduce the number of cards in each player’s hand!
Going clockwise from the dealer, players must try to match a card from their hand with one on the table of the same suit, and then keep the pair. If the player cannot make a pairing, they discard a card to the table centre. Should there be a tie involving the dealer, the dealer automatically wins. If the dealer’s not involved, the player closest to the dealer’s left wins.
Seems a little unfair, but rules are rules!
花札 (はなふだ) Hanafuda = Literally meaning ‘flower cards’
Hanetsuki – 羽根つき (はねつき)
Hanetsuki is considered to be a Japanese form of badminton. It is traditionally played in the New Year period and predicts the fortune of your year ahead. The aim of the game is to bat back-and-forth a hane (a small ball with feathers attached) without letting it drop. Using hagoita (special hanestuki paddles), batting the hane through the air for a long time foreshadows a great fortune. If a player misses the hane or causes it to fall, they traditionally receieve a smudge of black ink to the face – another reason to keep it in the air!
Once popular among women (as early as the 14th century!), the game is no longer commonly played today. However, people proudly collect embellished hagoita, which are sold at the Hagoita Market each December at Senso-ji temple (Asakusa, Tokyo). The hagoita are often decorated with Edo-era ladies, kabuki actors and even modern day celebrities!
羽根つき (はねつき) hanetsuki = traditional Japanese badminton
羽 (はね) hane = feather, plume, similar to a shuttlecock
羽子板 (はごいた) hagoita = ‘battledore’ or wooden paddle
歌舞伎 (かぶき) kabuki = Japanese classical drama
The following traditional games are perhaps more suited to children, but don’t let that stop you from using janken to settle a dispute or bingo to help you with your Japanese studies!
Janken – じゃんけん
The Japanese have their own “Rock, Paper, Scissors”, known as janken! It’s played exactly the same with rock, paper and scissors and with the same hand positions. To begin, with their fists clenched in front, the players chant,
‘saisho wa gu… jan, ken, pon!‘
‘We begin with a fist… rock, paper, scissors!
On pon the players must show their play. Just as we play it in the West, rock beats scissors, which beat paper, which beats rock. If no one wins, you say aikodesho, which starts a new round. Don’t forget to show your next play on ‘sho‘!
じゃんけん janken = This simply is the name of the game, but looking into the etymology, the phrase comes from ancient chinese (両拳) which supposedly means ‘both fists’.
最初はぐう (さいしょ は ぐう) saisho wa gu = (lit.) ‘first is the rock’
あいこでしょ aikodesho = ‘That’s a draw!’
ぐう = rock; ぱあ = paper; ちょき = scissors
Although I try to steer clear of the stereotype that Japan is simply a weird and silly place, you might be interested to know that the famous idol group AKB48 hold janken tournaments to decide the rosters of their groups. (AKB48 has over 100 members which are split into smaller teams, allowing simultaneous performances and appearances). The image below shows the moment Tanabe Miku beat Yumoto Ami in the 2016 final to become the central star of a new 7-member unit! See, traditional Japanese games are still useful today!
Kendama – けん玉 (けんだま)
A kendama toy is a ball-and-cup game but with added difficulty levels! A kendama has two cups on each side (a larger and smaller cup), a spike at the top, and third cup in the base! The ball on the string has a hole in it, with which to exactly place the ball on top of the spike. ‘Kendama’ is named after its shape: ken literally means sword, and tama/dama means ball!
剣 (けん) ken = sword; 玉 (たま) tama = ball (ta becomes da in kendama); 糸 (いと) ito = string
剣先 (けんさき) kensaki = spike (lit. swordtip); 皿胴 (さらどう) sara-dō = cup body; 穴 (あな) ana = hole
大皿 (おおざら) ōzara = large cup; 小皿 (こざら) kozara = small cup; 中皿 (ちゅうざら) chūzara = central cup
Keidoro – けいどろ
A variation of tig/tag/it! Also known as dorokei, this is very similar to playing ‘cops and robbers’, as the name is taken from the kanji of ‘police officer’ and ‘thief’ (see below!). The group divides into a police officer and thieves. The police officer must chase the thieves and, when tapped, they must go to a pre-assigned area deemed the prison. Courageous thieves on the loose can free their friends in prison by tapping them! The game is over when all the thieves have been caught!
警察 (けいさつ) keisatsu = police officer
泥棒 (どろぼう) dorobou = thief
刑務所 (けいむしょ) keimusho = prison
Okay I know maybe this doesn’t necessarily fit in with ‘traditional Japanese games’, but it is a highly recommended way of learning your hiragana and katakana (two of the three Japanese alphabets). There are 46 characters in each (they correspond at least!) so if you’re just starting your journey into the Japanese language I highly advise you find an easy way to practice learning the letters. When you’ve crossed off all the letters on your sheet, you can shout bingo – the Japanese have borrowed this word so it’s said just the same!
ひらがな = Hiragana カタカナ = Katakana
Thanks again for joining us in another blog post! We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about traditional Japanese games – maybe you can try your hand at karuta or share a game of janken or keidoro with the family! For some more fun ideas on passing the time and learning some new skills, check out our post on Origami kits for kids! If you’re looking for exciting and authentic Japanese presents for loved ones, head over to The Japanese Shop for bespoke, quality gifts!
And if you are playing any of the above games… ファイト*!
*faito = do your best!