Karuta is a very Japanese card game. Wikipedia informs me that the term karuta just means playing cards in Japanese. What I am about to discuss is Uta-garuta or poetry Karuta. There are two sets of 100 cards corresponding to classical Japanese poems. One set contains a complete poem while the other contain the final line of the poem. I should also point out at this point that Japanese poems are quite short in nature. Players spread the part-poem cards out on the floor in front of the them. A “reader” reads the full poem. Players compete to touch and win the corresponding part-poem card. If you touch the wrong card you pay the penalty of having to discard one of the cards previously won. This video give you an idea of what competitive Karuta looks like.

To me the game is unique to Japan for several reasons. First, the Japanese are serious about their culture. Learning or playing classical poetry games is the kind of thing a lot of Japanese people would do. Second, the poems are in Hiragana and not Kanji. Kanji are the Chinese characters. Hiragana are phonetic syllable characters that predate Kanji. Writing the poems out in this phonetic way makes the game much harder. It’s hard to explain the difference in English. If we wrote poems in middle-English they would appear both understandable and alien to us. Third, the nature of Japanese means that it’s quite possible to jump the gun and touch the wrong card. The number of syllables in Japanese is measured in the 100’s (depending on how you define syllable). In English it is measured in the 1000’s. This means that there can be a certain amount of similarity between the poems. This will cause confusion and touching the wrong card in the game.


Somebody has produced a Karuta game for Shakespearean Sonnets but, as an idea, I doesn’t work as well. For example, you could create an English version using song lyrics. Yet, you would know the required card immediately because of the complexity of English. There would be no confusion.

The students play this once a year in school. Each form class of the year competes against each other with an individual winner as well. Each class also has time for practice sessions. I join in one of these to the amusement of the students. I managed to “win” 4 cards which is quite good considering. But, I suspect that the students in my game were being nice to me. They hold the main competition in the school gym. Lots of 4 player games taking place at the same time. The teachers took turns to be the “reader”. Again, I got involved and read one of the poems (which everybody seemed to enjoy).

I have also used this in one of my language classes. When teaching vocabulary the cards can contain the English words. I then read out a sentence containing the word and the students have to touch the correct card. As English is the students second language this makes the game challenging. We repeat the game with the Japanese teacher reading the sentences in Japanese. The challenge is that the students have to translate before touching the card.

You can play it online too. Perhaps I should practice on a regular basis so that I can compete with the students in the future.